Chapter 105

I moved without thinking.  My knee came up in a swift arc, aimed directly for Akumi’s stomach.  She easily backstepped my clumsy attempt at self defense, dodged to one side, and then came at me again with the halved broom handle raised to strike.  I lifted my own hand – not to block, or to counterattack, but to make sure that my face wouldn’t receive the full brunt of her attack – and shrunk away from her. 

Answer me!” Akumi snapped. 

I don’t know!” I managed to say.  “I don’t know what you’re even talking about!”

I expected her to hit me with her improvised weapon.  With the door to the bathroom inoperable, she could probably have done a lot of damage to me before anyone could rescue me.  Torture wouldn’t actually help her, since I legitimately had no idea where her brother was or even why she thought I might have that information, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop her from torture anyway.  At least she could only use blunt objects.  I didn’t have to worry about her getting creative with knives or flames or anything like that.

She didn’t bring the broom handle down on my fingers, though.  Akumi breathed heavily, though she couldn’t possibly be winded, and glared down at me with furious eyes like some kind of vengeful god.

You were there,” she said finally.  “You and Mila, at the dock.  Why should I believe you?”

If she’d seen us at the dock, that meant she’d been there as well.  My group hadn’t stayed at the site of the massacre for very long.  The only way Akumi could know that we’d been at the scene of that particular crime was through firsthand knowledge.  I filed that information away for later use.  Assuming, of course, that I was in any shape to use it later at all.

It also meant that, at some point, Kira had been at the docks, too.  That seemed more relevant to my current predicament.

Whatever went down at the docks,” I said, “we got there after it was already over.  If you saw anything, then you know that the timelines don’t match up.”

Unless you sent someone else ahead of you,” Akumi countered.  “So that you could confuse the issue and give yourselves an alibi.”

Why would we take down your brother, knowing full well that you’d be coming after him, when it would have been easier to wait and take both of you?”

I was pretty sure that it would not, in fact, be easier to deal with both Sato twins, but I didn’t need to say that.

Akumi continued to glare at me, but she made no move to attack.  Cautiously, I stood fully up and put some space between the two of us.  She effectively blocked the door, negating any chance of escape. 

What reason do you think we’d have to take your brother?”  I asked.

I don’t know who you are,” Akumi said.  “But, when things go wrong, you are always there.  In London.  Now, in Dallas.”

You were also in London,” I pointed out.  “That doesn’t mean you had anything to do with what went down there.”

Akumi tightened her grip on the broken length of wood in her left hand.  “I had a reason to be there, Sarah Ford.  What reason did you have?”

Business,” I said.  Not technically a lie, even if it didn’t begin to describe my true reasons for being in London.  “I had business to deal with, that’s all.”

You have nothing to do with your family’s affairs,” Akumi pressed.  “That is a lie.  You would not need someone like Mila for that.  You would not have earned an invite to the party.”

By ‘party,’ I assumed she was referring to the Green Light Gala.

I weighed my options and gave her a little bit more.  “I’m not squeaky clean,” I said.  “I know more about that…lifestyle than I want anyone else to realize.”

Akumi shook her head and took a step forward, cutting the space between us in half.  “Another lie.  You are a bad liar, Sarah Ford.  You were surprised at the party, but not uncomfortable.  And the other night, it was the same thing.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “This is a dangerous world, but I think you already know that.”

Her stance changed subtly and I caught the electric tingle of impending violence.  I held out both of my hands in a warding gesture and decided to tell her the truth.  Not the whole truth, but as much as I could conceivably give away without putting anyone else in danger.

I’m a thief!” I said quickly, before she could take another step and start swinging.  “I’m a thief!  That’s why I was in London, that’s why I’m here.  But I am not a killer or a kidnapper!”

Mila would do it,” Akumi said, “if you told her to.”

Mila doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do and you know it,” I countered.  “And she respects both of you, even if she doesn’t necessarily like you.  Is this the way you really think she’d go about this, even if she took it upon herself to go after you?”

That argument made some headway.  Akumi stepped back again, widening the distance and the amount of time I’d have to scramble away from any sudden attack, and pursed her lips. 

Then why?  What did you want from the dock?”

Probably the same thing you wanted,” I said.  “Information.  That’s why you took the Texan hostage, isn’t it?”

The Texan?  Hostage?”

Benjamin,” I corrected.  “Your…date?”

Akumi blinked.  “I did not take him hostage,” she said stiffly.  “He hired us.”

Oh.  Oh.  That…certainly changed things.  Puzzle pieces began shifting in my mind, seeking new arrangements and solutions.

My brother and I want answers,” Akumi continued.  “About Goto, the Triads…everything. He wanted protection. The three of us all came to an agreement.”

That’s why he’s with you right now,” I said. “Because you’re protecting him.”

Akumi nodded.

I ran that through my mind and found that, while it cleaned up some loose ends, it unraveled others.  It explained, for instance, why the Texan had been so cagey at the Speakeasy.  We weren’t the only ones with enemies and someone must have painted a target on the Texan’s back.  Meeting the Twins, newly unemployed and searching for a solution to their own problems, must have seemed like an act of pure serendipity.  It wouldn’t have been difficult for him to arrange a meeting, discuss terms, and come to an agreement: their services in exchange for his help.

It hadn’t worked, though.  Whoever was after the Texan had still found a way to strike at him.  The bodies at the dock house were proof that Kira alone hadn’t been skilled enough to stop a concentrated rendition squad.

And, if the Texan was still charming my parents at the dinner table, that meant…

That’s who they took from the dock,” I said out loud.  “He was there, instead of with the Texan, which means he was…safeguarding the information?  You were promised answers as soon as he made it out of town.  One of you stayed with your newest client, just in case he went back on his deal, and the other went to the dock house to make sure that nothing happened to the goods.”

We would have been finished by now,” Akumi said.  It was as good as a direct confirmation.  “Out of this city and with the knowledge we came here to find.”

What did that mean, in the big picture?  It seemed that we’d all managed to acquire an enemy or two willing and able to exert deadly force to enact their will.  My team was running from the Magi, in general; I, specifically, was racing the clock to unmask and somehow defeat the Mouse before the timer ran out on my only means of protection.  Barrett’s ex-partner had gone so far as to put a price on his head.  Akumi and Kira had fled Japan to avoid some similarly nebulous enemy.

There were too many vectors to consider, too many possible attack surfaces, for us to defend or evade every angle.  It was easier to think of everything as coming from one source and adapt accordingly.

Did you suggest this dinner, or did he?” I asked.

Akumi hesitated only briefly before responding.  A part of me wanted to believe that she was opening up to me.  The larger, more practical, sections of my mind remembered that Akumi would probably just kill me if she decided that was the most expedient route.  With that mindset, there really wasn’t any reason to bother lying or equivocating.

At first, he did,” Akumi said.  “I did not protest, even after my brother went missing.  I knew that you would be here and this was the easiest way to find you.”

The subtext was faint, but unmistakable: “This was the easiest way to find you, without Mila.”  With a hint of: “And, if you did not come, I would know where your parents are.

Well, I don’t know anything,” I said.  “Not about who took your brother or why.  My work in town has nothing to do with that.”

Which, again, was absolutely true.  Max wouldn’t work with us to take down the Mouse unless the Texan was safe.  He was clearly still safe.  Now, we could turn our combined forces to the task of locating the remaining members of the Community.  We’d lost about a week since the timer started, but that left…well, not plenty of time, but hopefully enough that we could accomplish our goal.

But you were trying to find out?” Akumi asked.  “You thought that I had taken the Texan from the dock house.  So, of course you would want to find him for your own reasons.”

I’m not saying that you’re right, but I’m also not saying that you’re wrong.”  I made my voice as soothing as possible, as if Akumi was a barely restrained tiger, waiting to pounce on the first thing that drew its attention.  “No offense, but I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.  You can get your new boss out of town, set him up somewhere safe, and come back to figure out who took Kira.  They obviously wanted him alive, so they’re not likely to hurt him.”

No!” Akumi said sharply.  His voice cracked out like a whip.  “He is still here and I will find him.  One way or another.”

You could still do that,” I pointed out, “after you made sure that…Benjamin wasn’t in the line of fire anymore, couldn’t you?”

I do not know why they took him,” Akumi said.  “And I do not know that taking my client out of Dallas isn’t the type of thing that would push them over the edge.  Nothing changes and no one leaves until Kira is safe again.”

If the Texan didn’t or couldn’t leave, then Max wouldn’t.  And he was still in danger, even if he’d managed to slip the noose on the dock house massacre.  That put us in danger, as well, simply by remaining around her.  The only way to break that stalemate would be to pit Mila against Akumi.  I wasn’t sure who’d win that fight, but I was certain that whoever walked away wouldn’t be walking well when they went.  I’d have to risk my only source of martial strength on a gamble that might not help us in the short term and would absolutely hurt us in the long run.

Besides, the Texan’s trove of information was still immeasurably valuable.  If we found that, we’d likely find Akumi’s twin.  If we found the twin, Akumi might feel gracious enough to lend us her services for the duration of our time in Dallas.  Max would be more willing to help because, in the process of locating the kidnappers, we’d also be in a position to take the Texan’s enemies off the board.

And going along with things meant I didn’t have to disagree with Akumi.  That was one hell of a selling point, considering that she was still holding her makeshift staff/spear.

When you took the contract, did you notice anything different about his security routine? Anyone new, other than you?”

How would I know that?” Akumi asked.

Fair point, but I couldn’t believe she’d noticed nothing. It was more likely that she’d clocked something without consciously realizing it. At her level, there were always minor details that only clarified into complete pictures with hindsight. We didn’t have the time to get into that now, though.

Fine,” I said. “I’ll try and help you. But you’re going to have to let me out of this bathroom and you’re going to have to be patient. If we rush this, odds are high that we’ll push Kira’s kidnappers into doing something that we’re all going to regret.”

Akumi looked unconvinced. Her lips tightened into a thin line and her eyes narrowed to thin slits.

I was capable of advising Akumi to wait, but I wasn’t very good at taking my own advice. A surge of impatience rose up in me. I stepped close enough to her that our noses nearly touched, ignoring the thunder of my heartbeat in my ears.

Either you’re going to kill me now or not,” I said in a near whisper. “But if you do that, then you’re going to have to deal with Mila, the rest of my team, and you still won’t be any closer to finding your brother. Trust me or don’t, but make up your mind.”

Akumi didn’t respond for a few seconds. Those few seconds stretched into several and I began to doubt my own bravado. When I was just beginning to regret my words, she dipped her head a millimeter or two in acknowledgment. It wasn’t much, but I’d have to take it.

She removed the halved broom and tossed both it, and the length of wood in her hands, into a trash can at the far end of the bathroom. After a cursory examination of the room – just to make sure that we hadn’t left anything behind that might raise questions – the two of us exited and made our way back to the private room where Barrett, the Texan, and my parents were engaged in a discussion about politics. I noticed that Elizabeth’s first wine bottle had been severely diminished already.

I returned to my spot next to Barrett and sipped from my wine glass. “Apologies,” I said. “I didn’t expect that to take so long. Did I miss anything?”

The Texan ran his index finger around the rim of a bourbon glass. His eyes flickered up to Akumi, down to the glass, and then back up to meet my gaze.

Not a problem,” he said. “If you don’t mind me asking, what kept you two ladies away so long?”

I found a fake smile, somewhere inside of me, and plastered it onto my face alongside the most innocuous expression I could possibly manage.

Oh, you know,” I said. “Just girl stuff.”


Chapter 104

For a single moment, every thought in my head froze into a single block of ice. There was so much wrong with the scene that I literally could not force my brain to produce a useful idea. The Texan. Akumi Sato. Barrett. Raymond and Elizabeth. All in the same place, at the same time. Each person with an entirely different version of my identity that I needed to adhere to, without overclocking my neurons into smoky oblivion.

A map. I needed a map. Or some sort of web that would keep me from saying the wrong thing to any of the parties around the table. I’d been weaving so many lies since returning to the states that I could scarcely visualize them all. One at a time, then. I could handle this, if I took each connection one at a time.

First, Barrett. He knew that I was a thief, although we’d managed to keep him from finding out my particular specialty. He’d joined our group for his own reasons and, therefore, probably didn’t know about the danger we faced on a regular basis. Probably. Through sheer happenstance, he and I had been forced into pretending to be married for my parents – a deception he was fully in on – but he presumably still believed that I was actually married to Michel. Or had that ever come up in our conversations? I couldn’t remember.

The Texan also knew about my criminal activities, as well as my connection to the upper echelons of the international underworld community, courtesy of our chat at the Green Light Gala. He could place Devlin at the same event, as well as Mila. Michel, thankfully, hadn’t entered the actual party. His identity was safe. The Texan’s position as an information dealer – perhaps the information dealer – afforded him enough intelligence, however, that he was likely aware of the general shape of things, with regards to the Magi and the Lady. He explicitly did not know everything, though. He’d been ambushed at the dock house, for instance.

But that theory started to sprout holes when I added in the newest wrinkle: here was Akumi Sato, out in public with the Texan. Would she do that if she’d taken him hostage? Where was Kira? Was it possible that he was using some other form of leverage to ensure the Texan’s cooperation?

I shook my head. Too many questions, not enough answers. I could enumerate the things I didn’t know later; right now, I needed to make absolutely sure that I didn’t reveal anything to anyone who wasn’t supposed to know it. Instead of wondering what the Twins might know or be up to, the most important thing now was to focus on what they thought they knew.

Both of the Twins knew Mila. They’d come to her for help, after their Yakuza boss either vanished or was made to vanish. When they’d arrived at the Speakeasy, though, I’d been sitting next to their old friend. As far as they knew, I was only one of Mila’s clients. If they hadn’t recognized me at the Gala, or at the Speakeasy, they certainly knew who I really was now. They did not, however, know anything about my online identity or the fact that I was a fairly accomplished thief whose fingerprints were almost certainly plastered over the disappearance of their boss. Unless the Texan told them that…but why would he do that? Why would they even bother to ask?

That said, why would Akumi bother to help the Texan keep an appointment if they were holding him captive? And another thing: when had the Texan set up this meeting in the first place? Before he’d tasked us to rob the Sovereign? Before I’d reached out to set up our appointment? Or had he called my father after seeing us at the Speakeasy? The timing could change everything.

Again, too many questions. My thoughts were flowing again, albeit like lukewarm slush, and they tended towards pondering the unknowable instead of delineating the various deceptions, half-truths, and outright lies. Planning for the future was one thing; fully conceptualizing the breadth of potential disasters that could arise from this single dinner was another thing entirely. And, I realized, it was easier to think about what problems could be facing us in the future than it was to grapple with the two people at the table who knew me the best and who would be most likely to latch onto any inconsistency in my personality.

Raymond and Elizabeth knew nothing about my illicit activities. They’d likely never deigned to go to anything like the Speakeasy. Their security guards were discrete and completely uninterested in the day-to-day minutiae of their lives. Every bit of information they needed to do their jobs came from stock portfolios and company memos, not dead drops and dealers. The closest they’d ever come to danger had been a bad business venture or, perhaps, an unflattering profile piece. They lived the lives of the supremely wealthy: secure, comfortable, and detached from the world around them. It was the life they thought I led; the life that I had cheerfully thrown away as soon as a charming art thief offered me a path to something different.

I needed him here. God, I needed him to help me navigate through the tangled web I’d woven around myself.

Sarah?” Elizabeth asked. “Are you even listening?”

I blinked. “I’m sorry, I was…distracted,” I said. “What did you say?”

Your friend,” Elizabeth said, with the tone of someone already bored with the question. “I was asking how you know Mister Legree’s companion?”

It’s just Ben,” the Texan said. I refused to think of him as a Benjamin. Something just felt wrong about that. “Anyone who invites me to my favorite steakhouse gets to call me by my first name.”

Well, Ben.” Elizabeth paused to giggle, like she’d done something naughty. “Do you know my daughter, as well?”

I must admit,” the Texan drawled, “that I have had the pleasure of making her acquaintance. We happened to be at the same dining establishment some nights ago. As soon as I saw who it was – especially considering that I’d already been working on getting Raymond to come down to Dallas – I couldn’t just let that kind of an opportunity go to waste.”

Hoping to get to us through our daughter?” Raymond asked. The words could have been threatening, but he seemed more amused than irritated.

Raymond, I know your little girl’s got nothing to do with your business. But if I see a beautiful woman, I make it a point to introduce myself. I’m old fashioned like that.”

Careful, Ben,” Elizabeth said. “That’s her husband you’re standing next to.”

The Texan gave Barrett a cool appraisal, which Barrett matched. I could almost hear the wheels spinning in their heads. The Texan knew, almost for a fact, that Devlin was my partner. He’d seen it at the Gala and at the Sovereign. Barrett had never appeared in my orbit, at all, until Dallas. Plus, I couldn’t be sure whether or not the Texan was already aware of Barrett’s occupation, through whispers or rumors.

Barrett…might know who the Texan was, by reputation. It wasn’t like the man had done anything to hide from the public eye, after all. Barrett might not recognize him in person, though. Even if he did, I didn’t think he had anything to gain by blowing our cover. But that was only a guess, based on the assumption that Barrett didn’t have a personal grudge against the man. Or that the Texan wasn’t in some way involved in the mysterious job that had brought the cat burglar into my life to begin with.

I really would need a chart at some point. Or a spreadsheet. Or an entire wall, complete with colored string, index cards, and push pins.

I’m not worried about some innocent flirtation,” Barrett said finally. He took the Texan’s hand and shook it firmly. “As long as he doesn’t mind me saying that his companion is, by far, more beautiful than he is.”

You’d have to ask her if she’s okay with that,” the Texan said. “Trust me; she’s the one in charge of this, not me.”

If that was a subtle hint, it was too subtle. While I could still see that he was nervous about something, I couldn’t be sure the apprehension I sensed was because of Akumi or some other factor.

For her part, Akumi had seemed content to let the verbal fencing match take place without comment. She stood, confident and casual, to one side of the Texan and watched all of us without seeming to pay particular attention to anything in particular. Mila often had that look in her eyes, usually right before things went to hell. I tried to think about Akumi as another version of Mila, hoping that I might be able to understand her a little better than I did. A little bit of insight into her personality might be what I needed to give me some sort of edge.

First, the dress. Elegant and pretty, but with enough length and a touch of ruffling around the knees that would allow her to maintain her modesty when she sat down. I was certain that, in addition to her modesty, the bunched fabric would also let her conceal some sort of weapon: a bandolier of knives, maybe, or perhaps just a low caliber handgun. Her purse was just a bit larger than an average crossbody and probably held something more substantial. If Akumi was anything like Mila, she wouldn’t allow herself to be out in the open without some means of defending herself.

She wore low heels, though. Mila always wore flats because, according to her, she’d rather sacrifice some style points in exchange for the ability to run without tripping over her own feet. Akumi’s footwear wasn’t high enough or pointy enough that she could use the heels as weapons in their own right, but they would impede a hasty getaway. So, either she wasn’t planning on this meeting becoming confrontational or, should things go badly, she intended to end things right there in the restaurant.

Before she spoke, Akumi made sure to catch my eyes for a long moment. Then, with excruciating slowness, she turned her gaze to Barrett. “Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said in a slightly exaggerated accent. “But I do appreciate the compliment.”

Well,” Raymond said. He clapped his hands lightly together to draw everyone’s attention back to him. “Now that we’re all introduced, why don’t you and your friend have a seat and we can order something to eat.”

Elizabeth raised her wine glass, which had miraculously refilled itself in the moments when I hadn’t been looking at her, in agreement with her husband. The Texan and Akumi joined us at the table with only a minimum of fuss and reorganization. When everything was said and done, the Texan sat on my father’s left side, directly across from me; Akumi took the seat to my right, which effectively sandwiched me between her and Barrett. I hadn’t been planning to beat a hasty retreat – leaving my parents alone with a cat burglar, an information czar, and a known Yakuza killer was completely off of the table – but the fact that I couldn’t do it helped my anxiety reach heretofore unknown heights.

You never said how you met Sarah,” Elizabeth asked Akumi. “Was it at this establishment Ben mentioned earlier?”

Earlier than that,” Akumi said. “Although we did reconnect there.”

If everyone’s going there – wherever there is – maybe we should make a trip out to see what it’s all about before we leave town, Raymond.”

I almost choked on my wine. “It’s not…you wouldn’t really enjoy it, Mom. Trust me.”

The corners of her lips flicked down for an instant. “Shame. I always like to see the places where the real locals go. Not the touristy places, you know?”

One: that was the most brazen lie I’d heard in a long time, and I worked with professional liars. Elizabeth was, and always had been, a total snob. In her defense, she came by her snobbery in the most honest way possible: she’d been adopted as an infant and, therefore, had simply never known anything about how people who weren’t in the top 1% lived their lives. She avoided going to diners or local eateries simply because it didn’t occur to her that those places might be worth visiting. Virginia had made an effort to keep Raymond grounded, with some small degree of success, but even he wasn’t likely to enjoy anywhere as raucous and unconstrained as the Speakeasy, whether the clientele were all lawbreakers or not.

Two: the mental image of Elizabeth surrounded by cowboy hat-wearing, two-step dancing Texans was so ridiculous that I almost burst out laughing. I took a long drink of wine instead and hoped that the glass hid my smile.

Your daughter and I have mutual friends,” Akumi continued, snapping me out of my amusement like a slap to the face. “We have crossed paths several times before tonight.”

Oh?” Elizabeth asked. Even Raymond seemed interested.

I spoke before Akumi could, remembering Mila’s advice. Passively allowing someone else to take the lead was worse than actively making a mistake.

Art,” I blurted out. Then, after a quick breath, I tried to elaborate. “We’re interested in the same artists. Classics, mostly.”

You never showed any interest in art before,” Elizabeth said.

Barrett was so interested in that kind of thing and I just sort of…you know, started to see the beauty in the paintings myself.”

Elizabeth didn’t appear convinced. Which was fair, since I wasn’t being very convincing. I dug deeper, tried harder to sell the story.

He showed me the Birth of Venus once,” I said. “When we’d just started seeing each other. Said it was his absolute favorite. And, at first, I didn’t really see it. But, the longer I stood there with him, I started to see it. It was the brush strokes…the colors…it just felt real.”

The memory rose to the surface of my thoughts. We’d been in Florence, not on business for once. At the end of a week-long, whirlwind tour of Italy, he’d insisted on stopping by the Uffizi. Later, we’d return to attempt to rob the place, but that trip wouldn’t happen for years. Instead, we’d purchased tickets like regular people, waited in line like regular people, and stood in front of the paintings and sculptures just like regular people. At the Botticelli, he’d paused and just…stared. A tear might have formed in his eye. And, as much as I’d grown to appreciate and, eventually, share in his love of art…I’d spent as much time looking at him as I had the painting.

That’s so romantic,” Elizabeth said. “Barrett, I wouldn’t have taken you for such a softy.”

Barrett? I shook my head. Barrett. Right. That was the story I was telling.

Sarah,” Akumi said. She bowed her head slightly in apology for interrupting. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to step away for a moment.”

I couldn’t have missed the intensity of her gaze if I’d been blind. It crackled with electric force.

I’ll come with you,” I offered.

No, I will be fine,” Akumi said.

I was confused for a moment, before I realized that Akumi was also playing a character. She probably didn’t care in the slightest for propriety, but her modest cover identity probably would.

I stood up from the table and gestured in the direction of the ladies’ room. Or, more accurately, where I thought the ladies’ room might be. “I insist. I need to touch up my makeup anyway.”

Akumi relented with a token protest. I told Barrett that I’d be right back and, with as much ferocity as I could get away with while my parents were present, warned him against telling any unseemly stories. Akumi whispered something in the Texan’s ear, but her voice was too low for me to hear and the angle wasn’t right for lipreading.

We walked to the ladies’ room in silence, noticeably separated from each other by a few inches of empty space. Akumi paused before entering the bathroom. She looked around for a moment, spotted an abandoned broom, and grabbed it before she stepped inside. I followed after her.

Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but -”

Quicker than my eyes could follow, Akumi’s foot lashed out and snapped the broom in half. She jammed one end of the broom in between the bathroom door’s inner handle, so that no one could enter or exit. The other end, she pressed into my throat like a pry bar, using her superior strength, leverage, and surprise to overcome the modest height difference.

Tell me where my brother is,” Akumi hissed. I felt blood draining from my face as I saw the fury come to life behind her eyes. “Tell me now or I swear that you will not leave this bathroom alive.”

Chapter 103

According to Elizabeth, it would have been a crime against common decency to spend any length of time in Texas without sampling their famed beef and I found myself agreeing with her. Thus far, we’d kept our heads down by sticking primarily to well-reviewed, though out of the way, restaurants. The meals had been good – especially at the Speakeasy, courtesy of Mila’s culinary friend – but they hadn’t been the sort of fare that would attract travelers from across the country. Virginia was, for some inexplicable reason, a vegetarian which meant that she would never have suggested steak. And Devlin, when he was in a position to do so, generally preferred to cook his own meals. So, instead of pouting during the ride, I decided to look on the bright side of this somewhat rare opportunity to indulge.

We passed the time with small talk about the sorts of things that the idle rich often discussed: politics, various non-profits, and a smattering of insignificant gossip that didn’t really amount to anything. After I’d distanced myself from the Ford name, but before I’d really gone all-in with the Irene persona, I’d grown to hate inane chitchat with a passion. It wasn’t so bad now, though. There was an undeniable luxury to the conversation. Elizabeth and Raymond weren’t worried about international cabals, staffed with torturers and murderers of all stripes, or faceless Internet bogeymen. To them, the largest concern they’d have to face in the near future would take place on a balance sheet or in the stock market. No matter how bad things got in their lives, they wouldn’t be personally affected.

That wasn’t the trajectory my life had taken, but it felt good to pretend. And, before we reached the restaurant proper, I’d allowed the small talk to draw me out of my own head and into the moment.

The lack of prep time didn’t stop Barrett from putting on quite the show for my parents. He seemed to have a quip to go with every story, an anecdote for every observation, and subtle flattery to fill in the gaps. Elizabeth didn’t bother to hide how charmed she was by him. Even Raymond appeared to have a grudging respect. It wasn’t hard to see why. Barrett was presenting himself as the perfect husband for the Fords’ wayward daughter: steady, well-bred, and presentable. If I hadn’t already lied to my parents and told them that we were married, Elizabeth probably would have bought the ring and forced him to his knees herself.

That’s exactly what I mean,” Barrett said to Elizabeth. I’d tuned out some of the conversation, but I was pretty sure they’d been talking about her jewelry. “Anyone can buy some diamonds and call it a day. But the Mikimoto pieces…there’s just something inexplicably striking about the artistry.”

You know Mikimoto?” Elizabeth asked.

I know of his work, yes. And who wouldn’t recognize a piece like yours from across the room?”

Elizabeth covered her mouth with the fingers on one hand, in an impression of a flattered schoolgirl. “Raymond was overseas on business,” she explained, “when he saw this particular piece on display. He said that it reminded him of me and snapped it up on the spot.”

The black pearls made such a unique statement,” Raymond chimed in, “I’d never seen anything as beautiful…except, of course, for my Elizabeth. It seemed only natural to bring one to meet the other.”

I wouldn’t have expected you to be so well-versed in Japanese jewelry,” Elizabeth said.

I’m going to take that as a compliment, Missus Ford. I try my best to stay up to date on changing trends.” Barrett turned slightly, so that his miniscule smirk wasn’t visible from where my parents sat. “It’s something of a hobby.”

I barely kept from rolling my eyes. That was at least one thing he had in common with Devlin.

Anyway,” I said, drawing attention away from Barrett’s act, “how is the business doing?”

Suddenly you’re interested?” Raymond asked.

I shrugged. “It’s an interesting subject, even if it isn’t necessarily something I want to get personally involved in.”

Raymond sighed. We’d rarely fought, not even during my rowdy teenage years, but one of the few legitimate disagreements I’d ever had with my father stemmed from his desire to place me somewhere within the family’s corporate machine. My sister had chosen her own path – world class pediatric surgeon, by way of financier and philanthropist – which would add prestige to the family name. Neither of my parents had any other siblings That left the responsibility of keeping the business under Ford ownership strictly on my own shoulders.

Raymond took a moment, deliberately and visibly sidestepping the unresolved issue, before answering. “Things are as well as can be expected,” he said. “The proposed free trade agreement would take a sizable chunk out of our portfolio,but not enough to really put any of our upcoming projects in danger.”

Projects?” I asked. “What are you working on?”

A bit of this, a bit of that.”

Your father’s being modest,” Elizabeth said. “Tell her about your latest contract.”

Raymond gave her a look, but the metaphorical cat was already out of the bag. “For obvious reasons, I’m not at liberty to discuss the specifics. I’m not even sure that I understand the specifics. But one of our contracts with the Department of Defense is looking promising. Assuming that things don’t fall through, it could be what we need to secure our future in an increasingly competitive market.”

I frowned and said nothing. That had been another one of our arguments. With every year, the family business relied more and more on military contracts. Thus far, our involvement focused on infrastructure and construction – new barracks, paving equipment, general city-building things – but Raymond had never been willing to completely rule out the possibility that he might re-purpose assets towards weapons of war. In fact, he’d been outright cagey whenever I pressed him on the matter.

That’s good to hear.” I didn’t quite sound like I meant it, but it was the best I could manage. “What else is new?”

Elizabeth raised a hand before he could say anything. “We can pick this up when I’ve got a glass of wine in my hands,” she said. “We are here, at last. I am absolutely famished.”

I hadn’t been keeping track, but she was right. Our driver eased the limousine into a parking spot before hurrying out to open the door for us. Raymond and Elizabeth exited first, both of them looking like nothing so much as twin studies in elegance and poise. My father extended an arm for Elizabeth to loop her own arm through so that they could walk that way into the restaurant. I eschewed Barrett’s similar offer and got out of the limo on my own.

They seem nice,” he murmured to me. “Your mother has exquisite taste in jewelry.”

I punched him in the arm. “Do not steal from my family.”

Me? I’m shocked you think so little of me.” He paused for effect. “Those pearls are too distinctive, anyway. Can’t melt them down or recast them; it would take any competent investigator all of a half hour to trace them as soon as it popped up in circulation.”

Got a lot of experience with that?”

Barrett shrugged. “I wasn’t always the paradigm of professional thievery that you see before you.”

A smile forced its way onto my face. I turned my head away so that he wouldn’t see it, but I suspected that I hadn’t turned away quickly enough.

Among the myriad benefits afforded to my family, wait times and lines had long since ceased being a concern of ours. One of the steakhouse employees was waiting for us, just inside the first door. He ushered us straight through the lobby, where I avoided eye contact with any of the waiting patrons out of a sudden surge of embarrassment, to a private room at the back of the restaurant. A waitress with a professionally detached look in her eyes waited for us there, along with a man in a tall white chef’s hat.

Mister Ford, Missus Ford,” the waitress said. She pulled out chairs for my parents. “And of course Miss Ford and your companion. It’s a pleasure to have you with us tonight.”

Oh, you don’t have to be so formal,” Elizabeth said. I noticed that she allowed the waitress to push her chair in for her before continuing. “We didn’t want to make a fuss out of this.”

No fuss at all, Miss Ford,” the waitress said.

She reached for two more chairs, but Barrett beat her to the punch. He eased one chair out and gestured for me. I sat down, keeping my expression as neutral as possible. Barrett took the spot next to me, which placed the two of us perfectly opposite my parents. I suspected that happy accident hadn’t been an accident, at all.

Elizabeth ordered two bottles of wine from the menu, seemingly at random, while Raymond took the time to peruse the menu. Barrett lingered over the drink selections for almost a full minute before he settled on a brand of Bourbon I’d never heard of. I didn’t order anything at all. Previous experience had taught me that Elizabeth wouldn’t leave the table until both bottles of wine were finished; it was preferable that someone assist her in that task.

When the waiter retreated to get our beverages, I turned to Elizabeth. “What made you pick this place?”

It was a recommendation,” Elizabeth said. “The individual who suggested it has always demonstrated impeccable taste, which made this an easy decision.”

Is this someone I know?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I wouldn’t think so, no.”

He’s an investor in the business,” Raymond explained. “Not a big shareholder, as these things go, but certainly significant enough that he’s worth paying attention to. He’s a member of one of the factions pushing for us to expand into the area, as it turns out.”

I put two and two together, reached four, and rolled my eyes. “And he’s coming to dinner too, isn’t he?”

Raymond looked a little sheepish as he nodded.

Did you decide to drag me out for dinner before or after this investor suggested meeting here?” I asked.

Before,” Raymond said quickly. “When he learned that we were looking for somewhere to chat with you and Barrett, he suggested this steakhouse and invited himself along.”

That…wasn’t so bad, I supposed. It would’ve been entirely out of his character to pass up an opportunity to speak with an investor and force me into sitting through a business meeting. It wasn’t hard to imagine Raymond lighting up like a Christmas tree as soon as both possibilities aligned so perfectly.

If you don’t mind me asking,” Barrett interjected, “would this mysterious military project have anything to do with the stockholders pushing you to invest in the greater Dallas area?”

It might,” Raymond said. “I can’t confirm or deny that, of course. But it very well might.”

Well, if my interest wasn’t piqued before…”

Raymond winked and then adopted an extra-solemn expression. “My lips are sealed. You’ll either have to convince Sarah to take an active role in things or wait to find out with everyone else.”

You’ll be waiting,” I said to Barrett. “Just putting that out there, before you start trying to change my mind.”

In all the time I’ve known you,” Barrett said, “have I ever been able to change your mind?”

The wintry smile I gave him managed to convey entire volumes of subtext.

Our waitress returned with our orders. Elizabeth practically snatched one of her two bottles of wine and filled her own glass, right to the brim. The waitress only allowed a single instant of surprise to cross her face before she moved on to the rest of us. When she reached me, I considered the dark red, almost black, wine in front of Elizaeth before choosing the lighter one for myself.

We decided to wait for the investor to join us before ordering and the waiter retreated the from, chef in tow. Before the curtain could stop swinging, Elizabeth took a swig of wine and focused her attention on Barrett.

So,” she said, “what exactly is it that you do?”

It’s a little difficult to explain,” Barrett said. “I like to consider myself an entrepreneur.”

A lot of people call themselves that,” Raymond said.

A lot of people aren’t successful at it,” Barrett countered. “I’ve been building my brand since my eighteenth birthday.”

I wondered if that was true. Devlin had become a thief around the same time, as far as I knew. Mila’s life had taken a dark turn even before that. It seemed like every criminal I knew personally had started their careers at an early age. Except for me, of course. I’d been in college when the call, so to speak, finally reached me.

Raymond drummed his fingers against the tabletop. “But I’ve never heard of you.”

Barrett smiled. “I’m sure you have, Mister Ford, even if you didn’t quite realize it at the time.”

And whatever it is that you do?” Raymond asked. “Is that going well for you?”

There have been some difficulties lately,” Barrett admitted. “Nothing I can’t handle, of course.”

Is it a matter of funding?” Elizabeth asked. “Of course, we’d need to see some sort of business plan before we could commit anything, but if it’s something that you and Sarah are doing together, surely we could find something to contribute.”

Barrett shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, Missus Ford, but I’d rather make it on my own. It’s gone well for me, thus far. And Sarah isn’t quite a part of it, for what it’s worth. By the time we’d met, I was already pretty well established in my field.”

I notice that you still aren’t saying exactly what that field is,” Elizabeth pointed out.

A man’s got to keep some secrets to himself,” Barrett said.

Raymond looked at me. “And I suppose you aren’t going to tell us either, Sarah?”

If Barrett wants to keep that to himself,” I said, “what kind of a wife would I be if I took that away from him?”

Raymond looked like he wanted to push further. Once more, Elizabeth cut off any further conversation before it could go further.

Ah,” she said, “I think our guest has finally arrived.”

As one, we all turned to the curtain. The waitress entered first, pushing the curtain aside and holding it out of the way so that the investor could enter.

Two people entered the private room. The first was a woman, dressed in a form fitting black dress that ended just below the knees. Her black hair was pinned into an elaborate up do that looked far more decorative than practical. Which was surprising, when I considered what I already knew about the woman.

Akumi Sato adjusted a gold bracelet so that it fell perfectly around her wrist before she took the time to look at the rest of us. Her eyes went from Raymond to Elizabeth; from Elizabeth to Barrett; and, finally, from Barrett to me. Her gaze bored into me, painfully intense and focused. I resisted the urge to look away until the second person entered the room.

The Texan wore the same type of suit I’d only ever see him wear. It was the same thin string tie, the same cowboy boots, the same hat. But the swagger was missing. He pretended to be confident and in control, but I was an old hand at identifying false bravado. The Texan was scared.

Sarah, Barrett,” Raymond said, completely oblivious to the electric tension that now filled the air. “May I introduce you to Benjamin Legree. And…his date, I suppose?”

Akumi bowed her head slightly. “I believe,” she said, “that your daughter and I are already acquainted.”

I’d been wrong. Dinner could be worse than I’d expected.

Chapter 102

If I find out that you had anything to do with this,” I said, “’m going to break your fingers, I swear.”

Your bodyguard already issued that particular threat,” Barrett said.

Not Mila.” I threw my very best glare at Barrett. “Me.”

He responded with a cocky smirk and a little wink. I took a deep breath before my irritation pushed me into action.

We’d retreated back to the relative safety of my room. My parents and Virginia were still in the hotel, discussing some aspect of the business in a specially prepared meeting room. Before we’d left them, Elizabeth had made it clear that she had no intention of going anywhere until my “delightful husband” and I were dressed and ready for dinner. Raymond had allowed his wife to speak for both of them, nodding at appropriate moments and remaining silent otherwise.

After locking Barrett out of the room, I’d discovered that Virginia had somehow filled an entire suitcase with evening gowns and dresses from her mansion. Why she had chosen to pack those, I couldn’t possibly guess, but I couldn’t deny that it made things easier. I’d picked an understated, deep blue dress with a conservative neckline and a pair of low heels. Elizabeth wouldn’t want me to wear anything too risque.

Now, dressed and ostensibly ready for the evening, I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to hurl abuse at Barrett. No, it wasn’t his fault. He was just such a convenient target that I couldn’t help myself.

We have similar tastes,” Barrett said. “What was I supposed to do about that? You didn’t tell me that I had to lock myself away from the rest of the world.”

It was possible that he wasn’t lying or even really exaggerating. Elizabeth had a tendency to pick the most flamboyant, extravagant places for otherwise innocuous outings. Barrett was a legit cat burglar with a deliberate flair for the dramatic. Placed in the same town, neither party particularly interested in the city itself, I could easily imagine Elizabeth and Barrett independently deciding to go to the same place for lunch.

That thought didn’t allow me to stay angry at him, though, so I shelved it and focused on all of my negative emotions.

Listen,” I said. “We’ve got to deal with this, I guess, but don’t get any ideas.”

I can hardly help what ideas I get,” Barrett said.

I ignored the implication. “My parents are the kind of people who think any public display of affection is tasteless, so they’ll expect the same from us.”

Meaning they won’t think anything’s wrong when my dear wife gives me the cold shoulder through all three courses of dinner?”

Meaning,” I said, “that all you have to do is follow my lead, keep your hands – and your eyes – to yourself, and we should be able to get through this with a minimum of difficulty.”

That doesn’t sound like fun at all,” Barrett said.

Will you take this seriously?” I snapped.

Barrett rolled his eyes. “It’s dinner. My God. We’ll exchange small talk, I’ll get your mom to like me and your father to begrudgingly respect me, we’ll quibble over the details of some charming little story, and then we’ll go our separate ways.”

You don’t understand,” I said. “My father’s fine, but Elizabeth can be…”

Polite to strangers?” Barrett asked. “Deeply interested in her daughter’s faux husband? Why are you acting like she’s Jane Crawford or something?”

I blinked. “What?”

Jane Crawford,” he repeated. “From that old movie. Something about wire hangars?”

Joan Crawford,” I said, after a moment.

Barrett shrugged. “Whatever. You know what I mean.”

He had a point. It was just a dinner. A poorly timed dinner, sure, but this wasn’t something I hadn’t suffered through on countless occasions in the past. There was something about this forced family event, though, and I couldn’t quite identify what it was.

We’ve got a lot of metaphorical balls in the air,” I said, “and I don’t want this to be the thing that brings them all tumbling down.”

It won’t be,” Barrett said. “Relax. You’re making me nervous and I don’t normally get nervous about dinner dates with beautiful women.”

The door banged open, interrupting me before I could fully frame my retort, and I jumped in surprise. Devlin stood in the doorway, breathing heavily. He looked at me then, slowly, at Barrett; in response, I asked myself if I might survive using the window as an impromptu exit. We were only the second floor, after all.

Virginia texted me,” Devlin said. He deliberately cut Barrett out, with both his tone and his eyes. “What’s going on?”

The honorable Mister and Missus Ford,” Barrett said, gesturing extravagantly, “humbly request the presence of their daughter and her husband for dinner. Apparently, we’ll be deciding the fate of the world over desert. That’s the only explanation I can think of to explain the reaction you’re all having.”

I glared at Barrett again. “Ignore him,” I said to Devlin. “He’s decided to be an ass today.”

Not just today,” Barrett protested.

Devlin continued to ignore him. “There’s no way to get out of it?”

Elizabeth put her foot down,” I said. “Even my father isn’t going to stand up to her if she’s made up her mind. If I don’t go, she’ll just start tracking me down during the day until I’m forced to go.”

So it’s easier to just do it now, when we aren’t in the middle of anything else,” Devlin said. “Makes sense. How can I help?”

What help do you need?” Barrett asked. “You’re a thief. You steal things. As far as I know, there isn’t anything that needs stealing, unless you’re eyeing the flatware for some nefarious purpose.”

Devlin finally deigned to acknowledge Barrett with a withering scowl. “Remember that we didn’t ask you to help us out with our issue.”

No,” Barrett said, “you didn’t. You just bumbled your way into the Sovereign, then followed me into Dallas when you didn’t get what you wanted with your clumsy little burglary. So now you’re stuck with me…unless you think I should just go it alone? Then we can see which one of us is better at our job.”

Devlin took a step toward the man, clenching his uninjured hand into a fist. In all of our years together, personally and professionally, I’d never known him to be violent without necessity. He talked, evaded, danced around volatile subjects whenever possible. Almost everyone liked him. Even the people that didn’t were at least willing to speak with him civilly.

Yet, Barrett had pushed him into an open, albeit unspoken, threat with only a few words. That wasn’t going to fly.

Boys, stop it,” I said, before either of them could say anything else and further degrade any lines of communication. “We’re all grown ups and we’re going to act like grown ups.”

He started it,” Devlin said. He had the good grace to immediately look embarrassed when he heard himself.

I gave him a little smile, so that he’d know I wouldn’t hold his verbal hiccup against him. Which, of course, I was absolutely going to do at the earliest convenience.

Barrett,” I said, “you’re not a part of this team, but we happen to have similar goals for the moment. We’re working together because it gives us all better chances at success.”

You could be a little nicer about it,” he said.

I kept talking, as if he hadn’t spoken a word. “What that means, Barrett, is that you’re not going to antagonize Devlin or Mila…or hell, even Michel. Do that again and you won’t be worried about your old partner’s hired hands getting a lucky shot off when your back is turned.”

And why is that?” Barrett asked.

Because I’ll personally make sure that everyone with any connection to that side of the underworld knows where you are,” I said. “If you’re not going to be on our side, then I don’t want you in our city. It’s that simple.”

He searched my eyes for any sign of uncertainty. When he didn’t find any, Barrett raised his hands in surrender. “Fine,” he said. “I’ve got to find something to wear to dinner anyway. I assume you don’t have anything in my size.”

Barrett left on that note, without allowing me an opportunity to respond. Just as well; I had no clue what I could have said in response to that.

He could probably do his job with a black eye,” Devlin said as soon as Barrett was gone. “We could tell your parents that he’s clumsy or something.”

And you,” I said, whirling on Devlin. “What is going on? Trying to get into a fight when you know that we need him to keep up the story for my parents? Deliberately trying to force him out when we still don’t have any idea what the hell he stole from the Sovereign, who he stole it for, or why? It’s like you’re trying to sabotage us.

Of course I’m not doing that,” Devlin said.

Then what is it?”

I just don’t like him,” Devlin said.

And suddenly you have to like everyone you work with? When did that become a rule?”

Normally,” Devlin said, “I can just walk away from a job without worrying about a sniper targeting me at the store the next day. So excuse me for not wanting to add random people into our group that we don’t know anything about.”

The hypocrisy was staggering. I literally gaped at him for several seconds. “Random people?’ I repeated. “You’re worried about random people now? Like, oh, the cab driver you met after the Lady broke you out of prison? Or your buddies from the Russian mafia? Or, I don’t know, an actual drug dealer along with his band of merry murderers? Suddenly, you’re now concerned with whether or not everyone who helps us has been properly vetted?”

Those are different and you know it,” Devlin said. “What were we supposed to do after the museum? Suzie’s vest wasn’t going to protect me from a headshot. The longer I stayed there, the more danger I was in. And I didn’t invite the Russians into London; they had their own reasons for being there. Without them, by the way, we never would have been able to rescue Billy from his brother.”

And that isn’t the exact same situation we’re in right now?” I asked. “Whether he’s aware of it or not, Barrett is involved. He knows too much about me for us to let him go off on his own, for one thing. For another, I don’t believe for a second that he just happened to be in the Sovereign on the same night the Texan sent us up there to steal his information. We need all the help we can get and he’s help we can get.”

Devlin didn’t respond immediately. He started to pace, his hand clenching and unclenching at regular intervals. While he tried to walk off his anger, I went through some breathing exercises of my own. While Devlin was being ridiculous, that didn’t mean I needed to join him in needless antagonism. One of us needed to be the adult in the room.

Mila went out,” Devlin said finally. “She said that there were some things we might be able to use, in case your chat with the Twins go badly. Her phone’s on, though, if you need her.”

So, we were going to pretend that we hadn’t been fighting.

Elizabeth has her own security,” I said, “and she’d freak out if I brought a bodyguard. Any hint that I might be in my own trouble would only make her assign covert individuals to tail me while she’s in the city. Probably longer, if she could pull it off.”

Devlin nodded. “What about your anti-tracking thing? While you’re out, someone should probably get started on that.”

I can start the compilation before I go,” I said. “It’s predominantly a matter of time. The bits and pieces that need personal intervention won’t be critical until tomorrow, at the earliest.”

So there’s nothing we need right now?”

There’s a lot we need,” I said. “But nothing we can do about it until later. Getting through this dinner is my primary concern for the next couple of hours. We can put out one of the other fires when this one’s dealt with.”

Devlin opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything. When he opened it again, I knew that he’d swallowed something serious that he hadn’t quite been capable of articulating.

None of the local guys know me personally,” he said, “but I might be able to get some information out of them anyway. Someone has to know something about the dock; it’s just a matter of asking the right people the right questions.”

Do you think you’ll be able to find out what we need?”

Devlin shook his head. “No, not really. But that’s never stopped me from trying.”

He needed to act, to be doing something. Everything about his personality skewed towards frenetic activity instead of patient deliberation. While I might have appreciated some downtime to center myself or corral my resources, that same period of inactivity would be torture for him.

You know what you’re doing,” I said. “Don’t try anything without backup, obviously.”


We stood there for about thirty seconds. There were things I wanted to say, questions I wanted to ask, but none of them seemed to fit into the silence between us. The room felt awkward and I hadn’t felt like that around Devlin in a long time.

Fifteen more seconds ticked away before Devlin sighed, pivoted, and headed for the door. He paused and smiled weakly back at me.

You look great in that dress, by the way,” he said.

He was gone from the room before I had an opportunity to respond.

Another night, another conversation badly handled. Those were piling up between us. Every time we allowed an argument to fester, the possibility of a disastrous miscommunication in the field increased. When we were in the thick of it, we couldn’t afford the distraction; when we were off-the-clock, so to speak, there were always a million reasons why we should put things off until a later date.

It wouldn’t hold. I knew that much. Sooner or later, Devlin and I needed to sit down and hash out whatever issues he had bubbling beneath the surface.

Later, though. Just for one more night, we’d have to push things off again.

I turned my attention to the room’s extravagant vanity. There wasn’t much I could do with my hair on such short notice. Thankfully, there hadn’t been too much humidity during the day and my personal style wasn’t overly complicated. It took some muscle to wrestle all of the tangled strands into a semblance of a ponytail, but that was about it.

Makeup was similarly easy, though for different reasons. Most of my preferred products had been lost in transit or abandoned in one country or another. Restocking on eyeliner and foundation had ranked below essential equipment, earbuds, information, or Diet Coke.

When I finished my preparations, I went back down to the lobby. Raymond lounged in a plush, over-sized recliner, scrolling through stock reports on his cell phone. He stood up when he saw me.

Sweetheart,” Raymond said, “you look amazing. Is that the dress your grandmother purchased for you?”

I kissed him on the cheeks before answering. “It is. How’d you know about her wardrobe?”

She asked me for advice, of course,” Raymond said. “Your size, mostly, but also what sort of dresses you keep at the house. Of course, you haven’t been back to the house in years, so we couldn’t possibly know what your tastes were like now.”

I sighed. “Are you getting in on the act, too?”

What act is that?”

The one where everyone passive-aggressively attacks me all night long,” I said. “If that’s going to be on the agenda, I’d just like a warning.”

Raymond lifted an eyebrow and said nothing.

I allowed myself to indulge in petulance for another few seconds before, reluctantly, I let those feelings go. “Sorry. You didn’t deserve that. I’ve just…got a lot on my mind right now And, no offense, but dealing with Mom isn’t going to make things any better.”

Apology accepted,” Raymond said. “It isn’t as though I don’t understand. Your mother can be…difficult. She does love you, though. You know that, don’t you?”

I know,” I said, sighing again. “Doesn’t make it easier to deal with her when she’s in full smother mode.”

You never know,” Raymond said. “Maybe dinner will go better than you’re expecting.”

Elizabeth picked that moment to round a corner. She’d changed into an absolutely radiant dress, complete with a fitted bodice and empire waist. If it weren’t for the coloring of the garment – a lighter shade of blue than mine – I would have taken it for a wedding dress. Barrett walked next to her. As I watched, he said something charming in a low voice, which prompted Elizabeth to dissolve into a fit of girlish giggles. Apparently, they were already becoming fast friends.

It certainly couldn’t go worse,” I said.

Chapter 101

I found Mila in the hotel’s complimentary gym, pounding a formidable combination into the heavy bag with her fists and feet. Instead of interrupting her, I hovered in the doorway and watched her work. Over the months, I’d seen her go on the attack against men and women of all ages and sizes, armed or unarmed. Her preferred style of martial arts seemed geared towards swift take-downs and massive, upfront damage; knees were often targeted, as were elbows, skulls, ankles, and any other part of the human body that didn’t deal well with sudden trauma. It was a brutally effective tactic, especially when she had the opportunity to start her campaign from ambush.

The steady rhythm of attacks she threw at the heavy bag were fundamentally different, though. After one particularly vicious combination, Mila returned to a boxer’s stance: feet planted wide part, shoulders pushed back so that her body was a straight line from head to toes, angled away to present the inanimate bag a smaller target, both fists held up in front of her face as a shield. She circled around the bag cautiously, narrowed her eyes, and drew in a deep breath before launching into another series. Two quick jabs with her right hand at head height, a swift uppercut with her left that would have ended in someone’s kidney, a sharp right hook that was probably capable of impromptu decapitation. She shifted her weight back and lashed out with a lightning-quick kick, returned to her stance for a heartbeat, and then swept out with a low, ankle-high kick.

Her attack went under the bag and, for an instant, I thought that she might lose her balance. Instead, she made no effort to stop her momentum. The whiffed kick kept going until her foot was pointed straight out from her body to the side. In one smooth motion, she put the foot down and, despite the awkward angle, came up from the mat at an oblique angle and drilled the bag with the opposite knee.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her artistry. Each move led perfectly into the next and each one would only have been possible for someone in near-peak physical condition. On my best day, I couldn’t imagine performing that sweep-to-knee combination. Odds were high that I’d break something if I even gave it serious thought. Mila performed techniques like that, two or three times in a row, without showing any signs of stopping. When she paused, it was to size up her imaginary opponent. When she attacked, it was to exploit some imaginary weakness.

It took a few minutes before Mila made a mistake. She’d gotten too close to the bag and, as a result, couldn’t throw the follow-up kick she’d intended. She pulled the attack and prepared to drop back into the stance, presumably in order to begin again.

I cleared my throat to get her attention before she could do that. If she went into those weaving, elegant combinations again, I wasn’t sure that I’d remember what I’d hunted her down for in the first place.

Mila turned to face me. She’d stripped down to a white tank top and a pair of black basketball shorts. Each of her fists was protected by a glove. Her hair was tied up into a high pony tail which had the effect of keeping any loose, wayward strands away from her eyes.

Didn’t see you there,” Mila said.

I don’t want to interrupt or anything…”

She looked at the bag for several seconds, sighed, and walked away from it in the direction of a discarded towel. “You’re not. If you wanted to work out, you’ll probably want to change into something a little less…fashionable.”

No, nothing like that,” I said quickly. “You disappeared earlier, so someone needed to talk to you about what we’re doing next. That’s all.”

Mila grunted. “And what did Max have to say about everything?”

I quickly outlined the general shape of the conversation we’d had in the room. Thankfully, Mila and I were the only two people in the gym, so I didn’t have to worry about being overheard. While I talked, she toweled the sweat from her face, legs, and arms, then retrieved a water bottle which she greedily guzzled out of until I was finished talking.

So you think it was Akumi and Kira,” Mila said, when I’d finished.

I think it’s more likely than any other idea we’ve got. Unless you know something else you aren’t saying…?”

Mila ignored the implied question. “You think that these two former Yakuza enforcers murdered about twenty men in cold blood, kidnapped the Texan while in Texas, and got away without leaving the faintest clue as to their whereabouts…and you want to talk to them? Am I getting that right?”

When she said it like that, the idea sounded borderline suicidal. “Not in person,” I said. “They’d recognize me from the Speakeasy, for one thing.”

Are there other things?”

I didn’t want to put my grandmother into any more danger. I’d even grown closer to CJ, by virtue of his talk with Devlin earlier in the day, and I knew that his pain would lead inevitably to hers. And my parents were in town. If anyone found out who I was, what I could do, or what I’d been doing for the last six months, almost every person in my life would be placed in the cross-hairs of someone.

Mila might not understand all of that though. Or, if she did, she might be more willing to put my family at risk than I was. So I decided to translate my concerns into a language she understood.

They’re looking for mysterious people,” I said. “They don’t know what our goal is, obviously, and they don’t know how many of us there are or even where we are. That’s an advantage we might have to use, if I’m right.”

Like the Lady,” Mila said.

I hadn’t thought about it like that, but she had a point. Word of our accomplishments had been spreading throughout the various underworlds of the planet’s largest cities. Old alliances were dissolving, rivalries were being dropped, and everyone with even the vaguest aspirations to power was paying keen attention to the ebb and flow of the landscape.

Revealing ourselves to the Twins would simplify our lives, yes, but it would also strip away our greatest weapon: uncertainty. As long as they didn’t know anything about us, they couldn’t come up with a way to counteract or retaliate. Shadows, like the Lady had said. Shadows within shadows.

Yes,” I said. “Like the Lady. It’s a good strategy and I’m not in the habit of shooting down good strategies.”

Mila accepted that with a little nod. “When?”

As soon as I can get things set up,” I said. “They might be able to track phone calls, so I’ll want to set up a network to route our packets around. It won’t be great, but it should be more than enough to confuse the matter.”

Anything else?”

Devlin and I need to decide on an approach. If they have the Texan, we don’t want to spook them into running.”

Mila gave me a grim, tight-lipped smile. “If they have the Texan,” she said, “you want to make sure that they don’t decide he’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

That’s…also a possibility,” I admitted. “At the same time, we don’t want to come as too abrasive. On the off chance that they’re completely innocent, we’re definitely going to need more muscle in the future.”

Mila raised an eyebrow.

Oh, you know what I mean,” I said. “You can’t protect us from every single possible threat, especially if we’re working multiple aspects of the plan at once.”

Don’t do that, then?” Mila asked.

If I could stop finding myself up to my elbows in hordes of armed guards, open warfare, and the fact that I’m going to have to spend time with my sister, sure. I’d love to keep things simple. Why didn’t I think of that first?”

She gave me another begrudging nod, which I was growing to understand as a stand-in for a group of other, vastly different ideas.

How long will it take you to get everything you need?” Mila asked instead.

A day or two. Three at the absolute outside.” I paused. “Although I could probably shave some of that time off with Max’s help.”

Mila scowled. She didn’t frown, or show her teeth, or make a noise in her throat. Her expression darkened, her lips thinned, and one hand clenched briefly into a fist. The change in body language didn’t come with the usual feeling of violence, though. She just seemed…frustrated.

What’s that about?” I asked.

It’s nothing,” Mila said.

No, it isn’t,” I countered. “And, since we’re going to have to work with Max for the foreseeable future, I’d rather not have any surprises.”

Sarah, it’s nothing,” she stressed. “I’m fine.”

You vanished as soon as Max showed up here,” I pointed out. “And then I find you in the gym, trying to beat that heavy bag into oblivion. What is going on?”

I don’t want to talk about it,” Mila said, her voice tight and tense. “Why don’t you worry about what’s going on in Devlin’s head, instead of trying to get into mine?”

As soon as Mila said it, she grimaced. For the purposes of this conversation, I managed to weather the attack without responding in kind. Therapy had taught me to identify when someone was lashing out. If Mila was using conversations we’d had in private as a weapon, that more than likely meant she was feeling particularly vulnerable.

Also, I really didn’t want to think about the truth of her words. She couldn’t possibly know how confused I was about Devlin’s atypical behavior and I certainly wasn’t going to give her that information now.

I didn’t mean that,” Mila said haltingly. “It’s just…I didn’t mean that.”

You’re a private person and I can respect that,” I said. “But you clearly have a problem with Max and we need to know about it before we move forward. If you’d rather talk to Devlin, then…”

Oh God no,” Mila said.

Then what is it?”

It’s not…it’s not about Max,” Mila said. “Not really.”

It clicked into place for me. “Michel?”

Mila nodded. “I see how he looks at her,” she said. “And how she looks at him. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going to happen.”

She was jealous? And she was opening up? To me? She must be completely off-kilter, then. I didn’t even know what to do with that. My mouth opened and closed without uttering a single syllable, while my thoughts tried to adapt as quickly as possible.

I didn’t know that you, uh…you know, thought about him that way.”

I don’t,” Mila said. A moment later, she whirled around and drilled the heavy bag with a straight punch. “I do. I don’t know. It’s complicated.”

I probably could’ve guessed that one, all on my own. “Have you, um, talked to him about it? About the two of you, I mean?”

What’s there to talk about?” Mila countered.

I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but…”

Mila interrupted me. “I know what he thinks about me. I’m not blind.”

So what’s the problem, then?”

He’s going to want…things,” Mila said. “And…I don’t know if I could do those things. But I bet Max could. Probably already has.”

I blinked, struggling to keep my mental footing. “Do you mean…?”

Mila gave me a significant look as a response.

Oh!” It seemed like, everywhere I turned, someone was worried about someone else’s sex life. I barely had time to mourn the death of my own. “Why wouldn’t you be able to, uh…you know.”

I could,” Mila said. “But I…I don’t know. I don’t want to. With anyone, I mean; not just Michel.”

Devlin and I had joked before about Mila’s apparent lack of interest in either men or women. I’d never considered that she might legitimately be asexual. Considering our mobile lifestyle and the complications my former relationship with Devlin added to the mix, asexuality sounded like a pretty good deal…in general. But the anguish on Mila’s face, muted though it may have been, wiped away any thought of glamorizing her struggle.

Does he know?”

How would he? I didn’t talk to him about it,” Mila said.

Does anyone else know?”

She shook her head. “And I wouldn’t have told you, except that you made a good point. I can’t start holding my own issues against Max, when we might need her to deal with the Mouse at some point.”

When I’d pushed for this conversation, I’d expected Mila to dislike Max’s attitude or her general demeanor. Maybe Max reminded her of someone from the past that she preferred to avoid. But no, I’d prodded her into revealing a secret that, according to her, no one else knew.

I’ll get it under control,” Mila said. “Don’t worry about it. Maybe I have to hit the gym a little harder to burn off the stress, but I can adapt. I always adapt.”

You don’t…”

Mila gave me another look. I sighed and let the matter drop. If she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, she just wouldn’t talk about it. Pushing would only irritate her and make it less likely for her to open up in the future.

If you decide you want to talk about this,” I said, “I’m totally wiling to listen. You know that, right?”

I can get in contact with the Twins whenever you’re ready,” Mila said, pretending that I hadn’t spoken. “We don’t have anything else on our plate right now, do we?”

I ran through our list of priorities. Find the Texan. Enlist Max’s help in my battle against the Mouse. Locate as many remaining members of the Community as possible and, by whatever means necessary, haul them in as consultants and specialists in the aforementioned conflict. And, ultimately, to find a way to win a war we’d been maneuvered into.

Nothing that can’t wait,” I said to Mila. “Thanks, by the way.”


Telling me the truth,” I said. “If you don’t want anyone else to know, I won’t tell anyone.”

Not even Devlin?”

I shook my head. “Not if you don’t want him to know.”

Alright. I’d appreciate if you could do that, then.”

She was returning to form, in both demeanor and word choice. Whatever moment we’d shared was over, obviously. Satisfied that I’d found her, updated her on our plans, and managed to at least extract the truth out of her dodgy behavior, I left her in the gym, ferociously beating the heavy bag and working out her emotions.

I walked to the lobby, fully intending on heading back to my room so that I begin cobbling together something that would mask our location whenever we eventually reached out to the Twins. I was so deep in my own thoughts that I walked straight into Barrett’s chest, nearly at full speed.

Nice to see you too,” Barrett said, helping me to steady myself. “What’re you thinking about?”

It took me an instant to gather my thoughts. “What are you doing here?”

Is that any way to greet your husband, sweetheart?”

I opened my mouth to say something sharp in response. Barrett tilted his head to one side and, unconsciously, my eyes tracked along that line. Over Barrett’s shoulder, strolling arm-in-arm into the lobby, were Raymond and Elizabeth. Virginia entered right behind them, eyes wide as they met mine. She mouthed something that I couldn’t quite make out.

Is this something you did?” I asked Barrett, keeping my lips as still as possible. I didn’t know if my parents could read lips, but I wasn’t going to risk it.

Not my idea,” he replied, using similar tradecraft. “They saw me on the street and wouldn’t let me get away. How do you want to play this?”

My thoughts flailed wildly out of control for a microsecond and then I decided to make the only move available. “Stay in character,” I said, “and play along. I’ll take the lead.”

I love it when a woman -”

I punched him lightly in the stomach before he could say anything glib. He grinned for an instant and then returned to a more neutral, albeit pleased, expression just in time for Raymond to come within earshot.

Mother said that you weren’t feeling well,” Raymond said, after he kissed my cheek and gave me a warm, one-armed hug. “Is everything better now?”

Just some allergies,” I fibbed. “Nothing to worry about.”

Elizabeth entered the conversation with a flourish, as was her habit. “Here you are, up and about and healthy. It’s only been a day and already it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve seen you.” Sarcasm practically pooled on the floor at her feet.

Don’t be so dramatic, Mom.”

I’m not being dramatic at all,” she protested. “Our first day in the city, right after your terrifying incident, and you’re not feeling well enough to spend any time with your parents as we get to know Dallas. If we hadn’t run into your husband, out collecting his little trinkets, I might have thought you were planning to catch the next flight out of town, just to avoid us.”

There, but for the grace of God.

Just sleeping late,” I said. “I thought you’d be busy with business things.”

That can wait,” Raymond said. “Right now, your mother and I wanted to take this opportunity to get to know your husband. Since you’ve been keeping him away from us, that is.”


I should probably head back up to bed,” I said quickly. “Can’t be too safe, you know? The flu’s going around and -”

Sarah Careena Ford,” Elizabeth said, “you are not sick and you are not going to dodge us the entire time we’re in town.”

Raymond sighed and nodded. “We’re willing to be patient with you but there is a limit.”

Now,” Elizabeth continued, “your father and I are going to take you and your husband out for dinner. You will have fun. We will tell stories. And when it’s all over and done with, we’re going to have fond memories of our time together. Is that clear?”

I looked at Barrett, who shrugged the world’s tiniest shrug. With effort, I kept myself from sighing in frustration. My mother seemed willing to make an issue out of this dinner and I couldn’t afford to draw any attention.

Can’t wait, Mom,” I said, through gritted teeth. “Sounds like a blast.”

Chapter 100

By the time Michel got in touch with us, Devlin and I had taken the time to sketch out a possible series of events. It was predicated largely on guesswork and suppositions, but it was still fundamentally sound. Mila didn’t fully participate in the conversation; she preferred to passively watch us discuss the matter and comment on various points we’d gotten wrong.

CJ said almost nothing. From the time we left the restaurant until we returned to the hotel, he only answered direct questions from Devlin; even those, he only responded to after additional prompting. If Devlin had been willing to devote time and attention to the man, I was sure that he could have coaxed CJ into sharing more about his personal life. We didn’t have time for that, though, so he’d allowed my grandmother’s guard/boyfriend to stew over his own private thoughts while we found ways to talk about our problems in a way that wouldn’t reveal everything.

Devlin got the phone call from Michel and Max a little after six PM. The pair had finished unloading and storing everything worth anything into an nondescript warehouse on the edge of the city. The warehouse was, by design, disconnected from any aspect of the Texan’s network of owned property. Even with complete, unfettered access to every bit of information the man owned, there shouldn’t be any way for a potential attacker to pinpoint their location.

An interesting side effect of my time spent in conflict with the Magi, though, was a decreased appreciation for anything labeled as ‘foolproof.’ Just because something should be impossible hardly ever meant that a dedicated individual wouldn’t figure out a way to pull it off anyway. Devlin, apparently, had developed a similar thought process.

As soon as we can,” he said, as soon as he got off the phone, “I want to talk to your grandmother about getting somewhere else for Max to keep everything. Maybe somewhere that the corporation isn’t using. Or, honestly, somewhere they are using that might have some extra space available?”

I nodded. “I’ll talk to her whenever she gets back. The business should have some unused property available. They almost always do.”

It would also give my grandmother a task that she wouldn’t necessarily despise. I’d received regularly scheduled updates from her on her day out with Elizabeth. If her terse text messaging language was indicative of anything, Virginia was only a single veiled insult away from open violence. She was holding it together because she understood, in a vague sort of way, how serious it was that I be allowed to work. How long she would be able to restrain herself was a matter of some concern. I resolved to take a day off, at the earliest opportunity, to relieve Virginia from Mom-duty.

Two birds, one stone. We could move everything into a more secure facility and keep Virginia from killing my mother in the streets of Dallas. Assuming, of course, that nothing else went horribly wrong between now and then.

Another hour passed before Michel found his way back to the hotel, Max in tow. She’d found a change of clothes somewhere – a sleeveless Selena shirt, jeans, and a pair of black leather ankle boots – while Michel still wore his attire from the previous night. Unlike Devlin, Michel had no difficulties growing a beard. His stubble was on full display, practically thickening as I watched. Paired with the leather jacket and motorcycle helmet underneath his arm, I couldn’t deny that he looked good. Not that I personally thought he was attractive, of course – he was just a little too earnest for me – but in an objective sense.

I turned to Mila to share that thought, only to find that she wasn’t there. We’d come down from the room together, waited together, worked through logistical difficulties in my theory together. But, in the space of a few seconds, she had managed to slip away.

Michel spotted me seated on one of the lobby’s couches and hurried over. Max came as well, with considerably less excitement. I internally shelved my questions about Mila’s disappearance and focused on the moment. Wherever she was, I was certain that she was close enough to intervene in case something went horribly wrong.

It feels like I have not seen you in forever,” Michel said. We exchanged a hug before he sat down. Max remained on her feet, arms crossed and eyes narrowed. “But it has only been a day, no?”

Not even that,” I replied. “But I know what you mean.”

I actually did, too. We’d spent almost every waking moment since London within a few dozen yards of each other. When we were working, our earbuds ensured that no single member of the team was ever any farther than a shout away. When we were off the job – recuperating, planning, supplying, and the like – our rooms were almost always on the same hallway and absolutely in the same building. I hadn’t been unable to contact any member of the team at any random point for months.

Max pointed at Devlin. “Who’s that?”

He hadn’t been at the Speakeasy or with us when we’d run Max’s caravan of remote controlled trucks down. To her, he was an unknown factor. In her position, I wouldn’t have accepted any new members unless they’d been vouched for and were kept far away from my equipment. It was just good practice.

To that end, Devlin and I had already collaborated on yet another cover story to use with Max. This one had the benefit of simplicity, and it would allow him a freer hand to deal with new surprises as they popped up, but the web of lies I’d been weaving over the past week was becoming impossibly dense.

Hired help, just like the bodyguard,” Devlin said to Max. “I specialize in subverting physical security, with a healthy dash of extraction techniques.”

Extraction of what?”

He shrugged. “Whatever needs extracting. Pearls, peoples; I’m not picky about the details.”

You’re a thief, then?” Max asked. “Just like the other guy?”

A shadow passed over Devlin’s friendly smile. “Not exactly,” he said.

Max examined him for several tense seconds before, abruptly, she remembered that she had other things to worry about. She turned her attention to me. “Did you find him yet?”

Nice to see you too,” I said, ignoring her question. For one, we were in public. There was no way to know who might be listening, who might be interested in our current task, or who might have a vested interest in derailing our plans. For another, she was being rude.

Can’t say the same,” Max said.

I deliberately rolled my eyes and turned to Michel. “Did you have a chance to look at any of the stuff you two had?”

Michel shook his head, but it was Max who answered. “My information is encrypted. When I have my full system, it’s not a problem. If I’m working on a budget, though…”

I wasn’t sure if the tablet in my bag was the last one available to me, or if it was just almost the last one. “I get it. That’s fine, though. We needed to ask you some questions anyway.”

Immediately, Max’s guard came up. “Questions about what?”

Devlin gave our surroundings a long, significant look. “You, mostly. It’s complicated. But the answers might have something to do with your friend.”

Her suspicion was palpable. “I don’t see what I’ve go to to do with this. You said you only needed to know what he was working on, and I already told you that.”

We’re going to need a lot of information,” Devlin said. “Especially if you want to find your boss in any reasonable sort of time frame.”

Max opened her mouth to reply, paused, and then gave her unspoken sentence a second thought. She caught my eyes with hers. “How much does he know?”

Right now, he knows most of what know,” I said. “But he’s the best at what he does. If he says he needs more intelligence, I’m probably going to give it to him. As long as it’s my information to give, I mean.”

I hoped she’d recognize a peace offering when she saw one. Max had undoubtedly spent time and resources trying to suss out the real person behind my digital persona, only to have that effort rendered moot when I appeared in person on the back of a jerry-rigged motorcycle. With her well-established paranoia, Max probably thought that I had also been building a file that could expose her secrets. Which…wasn’t exactly wrong, even if I didn’t have the malicious intentions that she probably assumed.

Still, I knew that assuaging her concerns was the best move. Yes, I now knew things about her that few people did. Yes, I was one of the only people in the world capable of connecting her online identity with her real life location. But no, I wouldn’t use any of that information without her permission.

She didn’t need to know that I’d share that information with Devlin at the earliest opportunity, though.

It took Max about thirty seconds of intense consideration before she gave me a curt nod. I pointed to the elevator and we all migrated from the lobby, with all of the comers and goers we couldn’t possibly account for, into the relative safety of my room. After rousting Sam from the table where Mila’s leather sleeve of knives had been, I opened up a Word document to take notes and waited patiently for Devlin to begin questioning Max.

We don’t know what precautions your boss made for his own safety,” Devlin began, “but, whatever they were, none of them worked. That’s the first problem.”

Obviously,” Max said. “And you’re supposed to be a specialist?”

Devlin ignored her tone. “As near as I can tell, there wasn’t a single defensive measure that actually went off. No alarm systems, no armed guards, nothing. Stockpiling all of his accumulated information in one place without any way to protect himself; it’s almost like he was inviting someone to rob him.”

Max shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “What’s your point? And how will asking questions about me help?”

He was practically inviting someone to rob him,” Devlin repeated. He empathized the key word, this time. “Dallas is his home turf, where he’s strongest and most connected. There’s no way – straight up, simply no way – that someone could come into his town, tease out the details of his security, arm themselves, and thoroughly subvert every barrier or defense he had in place without someone knowing about it.”

Technically, we’d done that exact thing. It hadn’t even taken us that long. But we were also blessed with a dire need and I had more inside information than most. There were only a few people I could think of who would be capable of pulling off anything similar, and most of them were either on the run, in prison, or already dead. Or, in the case of the Magi and the Lady, otherwise occupied.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the only realistic culprit was the Twins. Max might be able to shine a light on similarly talented individuals in the Dallas area, sure, but those people would have been a part of the Texan’s web by default. If none of the hitters and thugs in the area had attacked him yet, he must have established some sort of arrangement with them. Hypothetically, the Texan might be allowed to work without interruption, so long as he refrained from taking any official position. Or, as he’d alluded to in our brief meeting at the Green Light Gala, he could have co-opted the assistance from powerful figures, legal and extralegal, to ensure that he would be left alone.

Whoever had taken him from the docks had intruded into a foreign city, completely disregarding whatever local norms and customs the Underworld adhered to, and they’d gotten away without their targets firing a single shot in response. That took skill, it took guts, and it took motivation; three things that the Twins had in abundance.

You think he wanted to get those people killed?” Max asked.  “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.  I can’t believe I thought you guys could actually help me.”

think,” Devlin interjected, “that he wanted to make a deal with someone.  And, when the time came for everyone to settle up, this third party decided to just take whatever they wanted.”

But why? He’s got arrangements with everyone in town. Anything he wants, he can get.”

Maybe.  But he might not have wanted me to do something; maybe he was just trying to get them to not do something.”

Max started to object, probably on pure reflex, but she stopped herself as Devlin’s point settled in.  “You think he was trying to protect someone?”

I think he was trying to protect you,” Devlin said.  “I could be wrong, but it’s my best guess right now.”

You said that you owed him,” I said.  “Owed him for what?”

Max blinked and stumbled back into the dresser before answering.  When she spoke, it seemed like her thoughts weren’t in the room with us anymore.  “It’s…complicated,” she said.  “I needed help a long time ago.  He was there when no one else was.”

Mila made a barely audible noise in her throat.  It took me a moment to realize that Max’s story sounded dangerously similar to her own. 

He didn’t even want anything from me,” Max continued.  “At least, not at first.”

What did he want?” Mila asked.  There was no emotion in her voice at all.

Little things,” Max said.  “When I was a kid, he taught me how to slip into buildings without being noticed so that I could eavesdrop.  Tailing people who worked for him to make sure that they were doing what they were supposed to be.  After I turned eighteen, I started working at the Speakeasy and he wanted me to report on anything that seemed interesting.”

A tiny frown appeared on Mila’s face.  “That’s all?”

Max nodded.  “And you think this was because of me?”

Max,” I said.  “Did he know what you can do with computers?”

She hesitated, but not for long.  The idea that she might have been a factor in the violent massacre at the docks had clearly shaken her.  “He knew some of it,” she said slowly.  “Not about the Community or anything like that, and he never asked me to hack into anything, but…”

But you’re not sure what he did or didn’t know,” Devlin finished for her.  “It’s possible, then?”

She nodded again.

The Mouse was back on the table as a possible culprit, then. Rather, as the person who had hired the possible culprits. It still didn’t explain why he wouldn’t have ordered his hired hands to wait until Max’s arrival, though. If he’d already gotten the Texan to practically throw open the doors, it would’ve been easy to hold off on the ambush for a bit until everything was in place.

Nothing about this made sense. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was some essential element that I didn’t have.

Michel had been listening quietly, as was customary.  He cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.  “So you think that someone threatened Max?”

It wouldn’t be hard to realize there’s some kind of connection between the two of them,” I said.  “At the Speakeasy, they made almost no effort to hide the fact they knew each other.”

And the Twins had also been at the table with us.  What I’d noticed, they had almost certainly noticed as well.

What about the two people you met there?” Michel asked, plucking the thought right out of my head.  “Why are they in town?”

They wanted information on Goto,” Mila said.  “Or, failing that, information about who successfully took him down.  The Texan said he had something to offer, but he also said he was willing to trade for it.”

Maybe they got impatient?” I suggested.  “Or they decided to take what they wanted, rather than paying for it?”

She shook her head.  “Absolutely not how they work, either of them.  If they make a deal, they will stick to that deal.  Akumi might kill you afterwards, if she thinks it’s necessary, but there is no way that she or Kira would go back on the strict terms of an arrangement.”

But they might threaten Max to get her boss to agree to something like that?” I asked. “If they weren’t already under a contract or anything like that?”

Reluctantly, Mila shrugged.  “That…is something they might do, yes.”

You just don’t think they would.”

I don’t,” Mila said.  She sighed.  “But I’ve been wrong before.  They had to be desperate to ask me for help; if they were being pushed, it’s possible.”

In strict point of fact, they hadn’t actually asked Mila for help.  They’d followed the rumors of a mysterious group – my group – wreaking havoc from city to city back to her appearance at the Green Light Gala.  Quite correctly, they assumed that she had been involved with the people responsible for Hill’s downfall, the destabilization of a ring of Asian casinos, and the implosion of a group of African warlords.  Those were the people the Twins were after.

Which gave me an idea.  A terrible, horrible, potentially brilliant idea.

Max,” I said, “could you go with Devlin to another room?  He’ll ask you more questions to try and pinpoint when someone might have drawn the connection.  Don’t answer anything you’d rather keep to yourself, but remember:  the more we know, the better it’ll be in the long run.”

She got to her feet and lurched over to the door.  She paused before stepping out into the hallway.  “What will you be doing?”

Making a call,” I said.

Devlin stood up and joined Max by the door.  “A phone call?”

It was rare for us to be out of sync, but not unheard of. The rarity made the moment that much sweeter.

Why look for the kidnapping victims, if you can just find the kidnappers themselves?”  I laced the fingers on both hands together and thrust them out, sending a series of satisfying pops through my knuckles.  “The Twins wanted to talk.  I think it’s time we had a talk, then.”

Chapter 99

While Mila was technically a bodyguard, she was much better at playing offense. We’d used those skills in a variety of different ways, almost from the very beginning, and the team had come to a sort of equilibrium around her tendencies. That was fine when we needed someone to play the role of a blocker or a defender, so that someone else could do the real work while our targets were distracted. When it came right down to it, though, she had comparatively little practice at setting up a perimeter or establishing security protocols that were meant to stand the test of time.

We protected ourselves by staying light and mobile. An attacker couldn’t very well hit us if we weren’t in any place long enough for someone to set a plan into motion. The Texan, however, had established a base of operations in Dallas. His entire operation was so rooted in the area that, when he’d decided to relocate, it had required a fleet of eighteen wheelers, a boat, and a bunch of hired laborers to facilitate the transfer of goods and supplies.

He’d been reckless, yes, and he hadn’t taken into account how badly certain anonymous criminal forces might want his information, but I couldn’t imagine that he was stupid. That meant he must have taken some steps to protect himself, either with technology or with manpower. And that meant his kidnapper must have taken the time to suss out those details, in order to circumvent any measures the Texan might have had in place.

All of that was elementary. Just a progression of logical points connected to other logical points. The problem was that we didn’t have anyone on the team proper with the necessary skill-set to figure out what the Texan might have done to protect himself. CJ was the head of my grandmother’s personal security, though. Her position as a potential target who was almost terminally unwilling to travel was the closest analogue to the Texan. If anyone might be able to provide a glimpse at the protocols we needed to examine, it would be CJ.

Of course, I had no idea how to ask him those questions without accidentally giving the whole game away.

How long have you, uh…been working with Virginia?” I asked CJ. I tried to be casual about it, but I could hear the effort in my voice was unmistakable.

Since I’d learned about his affair with my grandmother, CJ and I had made an active effort to avoid each other. At most, we exchanged five or six sentences before one of us found a reason to be somewhere else. Already, he was shifting in his chair, nervously dodging my eyes. That wouldn’t do.

I looked at Devlin and gestured for him to take over. He knew what we needed as well as anyone. Probably better, in fact. CJ wasn’t likely to know the details of the Texan’s specific electronic surveillance network, which was what I would need.

CJ,” Devlin said. He sounded perfectly at ease, like he’d known the man for years instead of only days. “You know, we spend so much time dealing with Virginia and we never really got around to meeting each other. That’s weird, right?”

CJ shook his head.

Really?” Devlin pressed. “Almost every time we’ve seen her, you’ve been there.”

People don’t notice me,” CJ said. “It’s kind of the job.”


He nodded. “Miss Ford doesn’t get a lot of visitors anyway,” CJ said, “and the ones she does get don’t really like to talk to the help.”

You’re more than the help, though,” Devlin said in a conspiratorial tone. “You’ve been on her security for how long now? A year? Two?”

Five,” CJ said. “But I’ve only been in charge of the estate’s protection for three. I worked my way up to get there. That’s actually how we…”

He trailed off and I mentally filled in the rest of the sentence. That’s how we started seeing each other. I grimaced at the mental images that sentence summoned before pushing them down, as far as they would go. CJ, thankfully, didn’t notice.

Well,” Devlin said, neatly filling in the dead space before it could become awkward, “that’s not how we like to do things.”

CJ smiled weakly at Devlin, even as his eyes flickered briefly in my direction. I pretended not to see anything.

Mila cleared her throat before Devlin could say anything else. She lifted one finger a millimeter from the table’s surface, pointing towards the bathroom. I didn’t have a chance to look up before Virginia took her seat again.

Your mother,” Virginia said, practically lathering the word with disdain, “is already looking for us. Apparently, there’s some delightful brunch nook that a family friend recommended.”

I couldn’t help but smile. When Virginia and Elizabeth weren’t at each other’s throats, the antagonism between the two women was a source of constant entertainment. The problem was that – at least, when last I’d been around both of them at the same time – they were almost always at each other’s throats.

When?” I asked.

Now.” Virginia sighed. “Since I’m supposed to be retired, I obviously shouldn’t already have plans for the day. I should be able to drop everything and rush over to chitchat over omelets and mimosas.”

Did you have any other plans?”

Virginia hesitated. “Technically, no,” she said finally. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t about to make some plans.”

I coughed to conceal a sudden giggle. “Well. Um. Are you going to go?”

I don’t have a choice, do I?” Virginia rolled her eyes, then grew very serious. “You need me to keep them busy, don’t you?”

I wouldn’t have phrased it like that, but she was functionally correct. She’d just made it seem as though as I didn’t want to spend time with my parents which was…a complicated situation, even when I wasn’t concerned for my continuing good health. I nodded, instead of trying to parse that convoluted train of thought into a sentence that she would understand.

Then I guess I’m going.” Virginia pulled a hundred dollar bill out of her purse and laid it on the table, then waved away my preemptive protest. “I’ll keep my phone on me, in case you need anything. And I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done. I’m not pressuring you or anything like that, but don’t forget that I want to help, okay?”

I nodded again. So many people in my life were acting completely different, all of a sudden, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Virginia, being helpful and understanding without asserting her own will over everyone else’s? Devlin, seemingly perfectly okay with me risking my life? Mila being…herself?

Virginia stood up from the table, leaned over to kiss CJ on the cheek, and left the restaurant.

She’s something, isn’t she?” Devlin asked.

Yes,” CJ said, “she certainly is.”

Devlin lowered his voice and leaned in. Unconsciously, CJ mirrored the gesture. It was an old trick, but it never seemed to fail when Devlin attempted it. “How did…that…even get started?”

Silence fell. It didn’t seem that CJ was going to answer Devlin’s question, and I found myself wondering why he’d asked it in the first place. Details about my grandmother’s love life wasn’t going to help us figure out where the Texan was, how to save him, or how to ultimately nullify the threat presented by the Mouse.

I’m not sure,” CJ said, just when I was sure he wasn’t going to speak again. “I’m really not. It just sort of…look, do you know what it’s like to meet someone like her? A woman who’s got the whole world at her fingertips, who can do whatever she wants…and she wants to talk to you?”

I know,” Devlin said. “Trust me, I get it.”

It was like that. I’d just taken over as head of the security detail and, one day, she invited me into the house. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been inside before, of course. Someone had to set up the cameras, oversee the interviews…you know what I mean.”

I didn’t, but I kept my mouth shut. Before I’d gone my own way, much of my life had been spent under the watchful eye of one security company or another. I’d never really thought about it. Even when I’d decided on an alternative career, my primary concern had been how to beat security, not the process by which security was established.

So she invited you in?” Devlin asked. “Then what?”

CJ hesitated again, but even I could tell that he was warming to the subject. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. He was a man in love – with my grandmother, which still made me cringe internally – and he wasn’t able to tell anyone about it. Even if he quit the job and passed the mantle to someone else, CJ would never be able to publicly talk about his relationship without fear. The allure of discussing it with someone else must have been intoxicating.

We talked,” CJ said. “That’s all. We just had a conversation. And the next day, she asked me to have another one. Then another one. Then…”

Then one thing led to another,” Devlin finished for him. “And now here you are.”

CJ’s expression darkened. He glanced at the door my grandmother had left through and frowned. “And now, here I am.”

How are you doing with that?” Devlin didn’t bother to explicitly detail what that meant. It was clear from the context, even to me.

It’s difficult,” CJ admitted. “You, Sarah, and her husband are the only people who know about us. And your bodyguard, of course.”

Mila glanced up from her desert and grunted in acknowledgment. Devlin frowned, his expression a near-perfect match for the dissatisfaction on CJ’s face, but merely gestured for him to continue.

We’ve been together for a long time,” CJ said, “but no one knows.”

Do you want people to know?” Devlin asked.

CJ weighted the question in silence for a few moments. “I want her to want people to know,” he said finally.

Devlin just nodded. “And you’ve just been dealing with that? How?”

It’s easier than you’d think,” CJ said. “We just don’t talk about it. Virginia doesn’t really travel, so it’s easy to keep her safe. I keep up with the home security and she doesn’t go out of her way to antagonize people.”

Out of her way?”

CJ shrugged. “Virginia is a wealthy, unmarried woman. There are always going to people who think that she’s going to be their ticket to fame and she’s always going to have rivals.”

How so?”

I couldn’t help but notice how Devlin was expertly guiding CJ into giving up information. I’d seen him perform that trick on a dozen different marks over the years and, in all that time, it had never grown less impressive. He wasn’t even asking questions, really. All Devlin did was prompt CJ whenever he fell silent, and CJ seemed endlessly willing to spill his guts to any attentive party.

She knows people,” CJ said.  “Powerful people.  And she’s obviously powerful, too.  Apparently, when you’ve been a titan of industry for as long as she has, the difference between your enemies and your friends gets real blurry.”

And you think that, as long as she keeps to herself and doesn’t rock the boat, her…associates will be content to leave her alone?”

More or less.  But there’s still the crazies who want to make a name for themselves or think that she’s got money stashed in an empty room.  There aren’t as many of those as you’d think.”

I can see that,” Devlin said.  He took a moment to pick his words carefully.  “How long do you think you’ll be okay with the way things are?  With…you know, everything.” 

CJ heaved a sigh in response.  “I can’t believe we’ve been…together…this long.  It’s not that I’m not happy with her.  And if this is the only way that we can keep what we have, I’m willing to be a little unhappy when she has to play a part in front of guests.”

You could get another job,” Devlin suggested.

If I wanted to have an easier, better paying job, she could easily arrange that.  Hell, she’s certainly tried to do it before.”

That was so surprising that I spoke up without thinking.  “What?  She’s tried to get you to work for someone else?”

Of course she has,” CJ said.  “Just because it’s not hard protecting her doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.  It doesn’t matter how much planning you have if someone surprises you while you’re at the grocery store or stepping out a cab.  Especially now, if you know what I mean.”

So why didn’t you?” I asked.  “Take the offer, I mean.”

Before you came into town or after?”


CJ held up two fingers.  “At first, I thought that it was the best way to stay close to her.  I’m still not sure if that’s true or not.  Now, though?  As long as she’s helping you with whatever trouble you’ve got – and she is going to help you, no matter what I or anyone else says about – then someone’s got to be here to make sure that someone’s helping her.  I couldn’t leave that to anyone else.”

The yawning age gap between CJ and my grandmother hadn’t suddenly grown slimmer, but I found that I could respect the notes of commitment and fidelity in his voice.  I still didn’t want to think about it in too much detail, of course, but the idea itself wasn’t quite as galling as it had been.

She makes it impossible sometimes,” CJ continued.  “I’m supposed to be the first one in a room, but she’ll do everything in her power to take the lead if I let her.”

My eyes caught Devlin’s and I saw the wheels spinning behind his eyes.  I couldn’t imagine what he’d latched onto, so I rewound the conversation in my head and replayed it.  I might not be as naturally talented at skulduggery and subterfuge, but I wasn’t a novice either. 

We’d been talking about my grandmother, whose relationship with her lead security guard wasn’t particularly salient to our problems.  Instead of using the conversation to lower CJ’s defenses, Devlin had focused on the two people themselves: their courtship, how long they’d been involved, and how it made CJ feel.  What could any of those things have to do with the price of bread or the Texan’s location?  How would knowing any of what we’d discovered in the last few minutes bring us closer to dealing with the threats arrayed against us?

I realized that I was thinking like a thief.  Like Devlin, specifically.  That was better than thinking like a prey animal, though not by much.  Devlin wasn’t the type of person to kidnap someone, normally, and he certainly wouldn’t be a party to wholesale slaughter.  Neither would Mila, for that matter.  No matter what she did, I didn’t believe for an instant that she was capable of cold-blooded murder.  Maybe in the past – I couldn’t say with any certainty what she might have done in her days with Aiden  – but not anymore.  She’d changed, just as we’d changed.

No.  I needed to think like someone else, to look at it through their eyes.  I needed to think like the Twins.

I contorted my thought processes as best as I could, cobbling together a framework from my impression of the Twins coupled with what Mila had been able to tell me about them.  I hadn’t worked beside or against many established criminal cabals during my career, but I’d watched movies.  Those weren’t typically resources I mined for inspiration, but it had worked for Devlin, hadn’t it?  We’d gotten the basic idea for our pursuit of Max from his film selection.  Why shouldn’t it work here, as well?

When I had constructed a flawed mental lens that vaguely resembled what I thought of the Twins, I tried examining the conversation through it.  Almost immediately, a possibility leaped out at me.  It was the sort of thing that I would have immediately dismissed out of hand, but the Twins…no, they wouldn’t shoot down any idea without considering its potential.

CJ was supposed to be my grandmother’s protector and, by all appearances, he took that job seriously.  In a dangerous situation, he would probably be more likely to throw himself in harm’s way to protect her.  But the relationship between the two of them had thrown the balance of power entirely out of…well, balance.  By trying to move him into another job, Virginia was trying to protect CJ.  How far, then, would she go to keep her lover away from harm’s way? 

Would she…subvert her own security measures and put herself at risk? 

I looked back at Devlin and immediately recognized the light of dawning understanding on his face.

Max,” he said. 

Exactly,” I replied.


Chapter 98

What do we know?” Devlin asked. “And what are we just guessing at? Let’s start with that.”

Mila, Devlin, and I were seated in the corner booth of an otherwise empty restaurant. In order to ensure that my parents couldn’t just drop in, we’d called a cab and made our way across town to a place so rustic that it didn’t even have functional wireless internet. Virginia and CJ were supposed to join us within the hour, so we needed to use the time available to discuss everything that she didn’t quite know about yet. Privacy and isolation were assets, at the moment.

Someone kidnapped the Texan,” Mila said.

And got rid of any witnesses while they were at it.” Devlin speared a forkful of barbecue and chewed on it thoughtfully for several seconds. “Why?”

Why did they take the Texan?” I asked. “Or why did they kill the witnesses?”

Both?” He shook his head before I could answer. “No, let’s focus on the first thing. The Texan sells information. You wouldn’t have to kidnap him if you wanted to pick his brain.”

You’d just set a meeting and discuss the price,” I said. “That makes sense.”

And another thing I don’t understand,” Devlin continued. “Eliminating witnesses seems to be the kind of thing one does when one wants to cover their tracks. Mila?”

That’s right,” she said. “And?”

Wouldn’t it have been smarter to take everyone, so that no one else realized that something had happened? Or, if you absolutely have to get rid of the dock workers, couldn’t you transport them somewhere else?” Devlin scratched at his chin. He’d shaved off the beard-in-training during his shower. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the change or why I cared about the change at all.

Dump the bodies, you mean?” Mila tilted her head to one side and moved some of her desert – an oversized slice of pecan pie – into her mouth. “Where would you even put two dozen bodies?”

I don’t know,” Devlin said. “Where would you put them?”

The question provoked another stretch of silence from Mila. I used the time to privately marvel at how quickly he’d adapted to the new paradigm. We’d always lived on the dangerous side of things. When we’d accepted the Lady’s contract, the threat of violence had escalated. Now, we’d seen multiple people lose their lives in person, and Devlin had adjusted to the new normal with barely a hint of difficulty. I wondered if his ability to process everything at light speed was an inherent part of his personality or if he hadn’t been totally honest about his previous experience.

How much time do I have? ” Mila asked. “Hypothetically, I mean?”

You said the attack came an hour or two before you guys got there?” Devlin tilted his head one way, then the other. “Start with that. We can extrapolate later, if we need to.”

Mila nodded. “There’s only a couple of options. One: load them onto the boat, take them to your destination, and then sink the thing. It would all come out eventually, but you’d have a considerable head start at that point.”

Could the attackers have done that?”

She shrugged. “It’s possible, I guess. That’s what I’d do if I wanted to leave people confused for a bit.”

Other options?” Devlin asked.

Burn down the building,” Mila said. “Put in a token effort to make it look like an accident and then move on. That would give the local police an excuse not to look too closely.”

I raised my hand to get her attention. “You’re assuming the cops aren’t on the take?”

Either way, really,” she said.

I sipped at my soda. “But they didn’t do either of those things. Why not?”

Whoever the attackers are, they weren’t worried about people knowing what they did,” Mila said. “There’s really no other reason to leave the evidence of the crime out on full display like that.”

Or,” Devlin said, “they wanted someone to know what they did.”

Mila raised an eyebrow.

Stop me if I say anything demonstrably wrong,” Devlin said. “Someone or someones decided to hit the Texan as he was trying to transport his stash of secrets to an undisclosed location. These same people killed every witness to the crime and left those bodies behind in an orgy of evidence for anyone who came looking.”

Like Max,” I said. “She wasn’t going to let that kind of slaughter go by without a response.”

Like Max,” Devlin said, “but not Max. If they wanted to get her, they could have just waited until she showed up. It’s not like they needed to work on a specific timeline.”

Unless they did,” Mila said, “and we just don’t know about it.”

Devlin acknowledged that possibility with a slight nod. “I’m suggesting that the gruesome scene wasn’t a byproduct, but a goal, in and of itself. What if someone wanted to leave a message to everyone else that they were playing for keeps?”

I ran through the points in my mind. If I was willing to accept that anyone would kill two dozen people to make a statement, then Devlin’s theory held water. It didn’t necessarily fit with the Twins, though; neither Akumi nor Kira had any reason to declare themselves to the Texas underworld like that.

That I knew about, at least.

It didn’t jibe with the Mouse’s usual M.O., either. He’d always worked behind the scenes, avoiding attention whenever possible. In order to keep his other identity as the infamous Caelum under wraps, he’d gone so far as to effect an entire second online identity. Anyone that paranoid and that circumspect wouldn’t go around attracting scrutiny for scrutiny’s sake.

At the same time, he almost certainly wasn’t doing his own fieldwork. He could have hired someone to handle anything in person and that individual might have seen an opportunity to get creative, without his direct input. Or, I realized, the atypical behavior might well have the point. By leaving a bloody spectacle behind, the Mouse could direct everyone to other, more dramatic suspects.

We’re not getting anywhere,” I said. “There are a million different reasons why someone could have killed the dockworkers and kidnapped the Texan. Each reason comes with its own ready-made list of suspects. Each suspect leads us down an entirely different train of thought.”

She’s got a point,” Mila said.

Devlin sighed. “I know. I know. But I’m spinning my wheels here, trying to come up with some lead we can follow. If we can’t get a grip on something, we’ll never be able to find the Texan.”

And if we can’t find him,” Mila said, “we won’t be able to use Max to find the Mouse. Unless you think you can sweet talk her?”

The question was directed at me. I answered by dramatically blowing air out of my nostrils. “For whatever reason, Max is solely focused on finding the Texan. If we change our focus, she’s just going to disappear into the wind.”

Well,” Devlin said, “we needed him anyway, didn’t we? Finding out who took him and getting him back helps everyone.”

I thought about the steadily decreasing timer, ticking away the seconds before my security failed and the Mouse gained access to all of my secrets. The Texan could bring us closer to a solution; he could also be completely useless. Every second we spent debating the specifics of the abduction was a second we weren’t spending on the problem of the Mouse.

Instead of bringing that up, I finished off my soda and leaned back in the chair. “So, basically, we have nothing solid to go on and nowhere in particular to start looking. We don’t know who did it and we have no idea how we might go about finding that information. And we have to rescue the Texan before whoever took him decides that keeping him hostage isn’t worth the trouble anymore.”

Yeah,” Devlin said. “That about sums it up.”

I used to have clear goals,” Mila mused. “Go here, do this, get out.”

Devlin pointed his fork at the remains of her pecan pie. “Sure, but was the food this good?”

Mila rolled her eyes and said nothing. But she did take an extra large bite of pie.

We tossed around various ideas and shot down as many as we created for the next forty-five minutes. Mila eventually slipped our server a twenty and retrieved pitchers of water and Diet Coke for herself. The manager on duty was nowhere to be seen, so our server didn’t get in any trouble when he found an isolated table at the far end of the restaurant, sat down, and started to idly scroll through something on his phone.

Virginia arrived at the very end of the hour, CJ in tow. She wore comically over-sized sunglasses and a scarf to cover her hair. He was dressed in casual, worn jeans and a nondescript t-shirt. They found us easily and, after a brief shuffle of moved chairs and apologies, found places to sit.

Your mother,” Virginia said, by way of greeting, “must have alerted every media outlet in the city that she was visiting. Paparazzi started after us like locusts as soon as we left the hotel. I didn’t know if that was the kind of thing that could hurt you, so CJ and I ended up having to change cabs a few times.”

That’s a good idea in general,” Devlin said. “But right now, we’re just having lunch. It wouldn’t hurt anything for you to be seen with us.”

Virginia waved a dismissive hand in front of her face. “I don’t want to be seen, at all. There’s a reason I live by myself in Atlanta. Anyway.”

Did Mom tell you about how long she’s staying in town?” I asked.

She didn’t,” Virginia said, “but your father did. A week? Maybe longer? It’s almost like she’s trying to ruin my vacation.”

Strictly speaking, we aren’t really on a vacation.”

Virginia passed a hand over her eyes. “Obviously, I know that. You get what I meant, though.”

I wasn’t sure that I did, until she laid a hand on top of CJ’s in an unconscious gesture of affection. Then, I was absolutely sure that I didn’t want to know.

Did you find anything about the, uh, painting you’re looking for?” Virginia asked abruptly. She lowered her voice before speaking, so I had to reverse engineer the words before replying.

Not quite,” I said. “On the bright side, what we’re looking for right now is probably in the city.”


Mila shrugged. “The odds are good, I think.”

Can I help?” Virginia asked.

I shook my head. “Not with this. It’s…kind of a high risk, high reward situation.”

Virginia looked like she was going to complain. She tightened her grip on CJ’s hand momentarily, then relaxed. “What are you going to do about your parents, then?”

I refilled my cup with soda. “Honestly? I was hoping you’d be able to run interference for us. At least for the next few days.”

Virginia took the pitcher from my hands, searched the table intently, and finally spotted an unused cup near Devlin. She took the cup and filled it with soda for herself. “What kind of interference did you have in mind?”

So. Um.” I took a deep breath. She really wasn’t going to like what came next. “Mom’s got a whole agenda planned for the next couple of days. If you could maybe fill in for me, then -”

Fill in?” Virginia repeated. “You expect me to voluntarily spend time with that woman?”

Not by yourself,” I said quickly. “There’ll be a buffer between the two of you, in addition to Dad.”

Who? Your husband?”

Not quite.”

Virginia gestured for me to elaborate.

There was someone with us, right after we got into that car accident,” I said.

I remember, Sarah. What about him?”

Well. Somehow, Mom got the idea that he’s my husband.”

Virginia closed her eyes and silently counted to ten. She spoke with her eyes still shut. “And your real husband doesn’t have a problem with that?”

Even though she couldn’t see me, I scrupulously went out of my way to look anywhere except at Devlin. “He understands the stakes,” I said.

Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Mila asked.

No,” I admitted. “No, of course I’m not.”

It frees up Michel to move around on his own,” Devlin pointed out. “And, if Barrett’s with your grandmother, at least we won’t have to worry about what he’s doing.”

He didn’t point out that we needed to keep Barrett on the periphery of our true business in town. Coming up with a strategy to deal with all of our assorted enemies would be hard enough without the additional handicap of a team member who was out of the loop. Sending Barrett and Virginia to occupy my parents would allow me to work without restriction for at least a day or two.

At the same time, it meant allowing Barrett to get unbearably close to my real life. Devlin hadn’t met my family before. I could only imagine how much it galled him to have Barrett stroll in and garner an invitation I’d never extended to my own husband. Whatever was going on inside Devlin’s head, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to work through it as well as he was.

This is important?” Virginia asked. “You aren’t just giving me busy work?”

Trust me,” I said. “Keeping my parents from looking too hard at what I’m doing is the best thing for everyone. Besides, you might be able to pick up something from my new friend that I couldn’t get on my own. Never know when that’s going to be useful.”

She sighed. “It’s just as well. CJ, would you mind staying with them for the next couple of days, then?”

It was so easy to forget about CJ. He looked up from his phone and raised a curious eyebrow at Virginia. She lifted one in response and something was communicated between the two of them. Whatever message Virginia had sent him, it hadn’t been what CJ wanted to hear. He sank slightly into himself.

Of course,” he said.

He won’t get in your way,” Virginia said, before I could get out a protest. “But if you need someone to pick up things or…whatever it is that you need him to do, he’ll be available. If nothing comes up, I’m not trying to force him onto you.”

I sighed. As far as we knew, CJ only knew what Virginia knew. That meant we’d still have to keep him away from anything sensitive. It would be easier to do that with a civilian than another thief. As compromises went, I didn’t hate this one as much as I could have.

Alright, that’s fine. If you need a list of places to take Mom and Dad, just let me know. I can get something like that for you pretty easily.”

Virginia pushed back in her chair, got to her feet, and grumbled under her breath while she walked to the bathroom. I caught the tail end of her diatribe. “Knowing Elizabeth, she’s probably had this whole thing planned for months, just in case. That’d be just like her.”

A few puzzle pieces drifted from one place to another in my mind. They didn’t quite fall into place, but they did begin to resemble the shape of an idea.

I turned to Devlin and Mila. “We’ve been trying to figure this out by asking the usual questions. Who, what, when, where…that sort of thing.”

And we shouldn’t be doing that?” Mila asked.

I shook my head. “We should, but we’ve been forgetting the most obvious problem. How.”

Devlin caught on almost instantly. “You mean, instead of trying to figure it out from the evidence left over…”

I finished for him. “…we should be trying to figure out the crime. How to pull off something like this. Figure that out and we should be able to narrow down our pool of suspects. We might even be able to point the finger squarely at the guilty party.”

CJ was feigning interest in his phone, but I could tell that his attention was actually on us. Which was just as well. Who better than my grandmother’s head of security to help us figure out the best way to get to a protected person, after all?

Chapter 97

When I woke up, Mila was seated at my desk with a leather kit spread out in front of her.  She eased one tiny knife out from a sheath and tested its point against the pad of her finger. Unsatisfied, she found a whetstone in her pocket and set to sharpening the blade’s edge in a series of slow, steady motions.  After thirty or forty seconds, she checked the point again and grunted as its sharpness met with her exacting standards.  The knife went back into its sheath and she reached for another one.

Sam uncurled himself from a white ball of fluff and fur, stalked across the desk until he was directly in front of Mila, and meowed loudly in her face.  She sighed and, instead of getting to work on another one of her knives, used that hand to scratch along the side of Sam’s neck. 

Don’t give me that face,” Mila said to the cat.  “You’re the one who decided you had a new favorite person.”

Sam yawned, pink tongue curling back in his mouth, and bit lightly at her knuckles.  Mila endured the attack and retaliated by increasing the vigor of her neck scratches.

The cat meowed again, louder, and slinked past Mila.  He jumped to the floor, padded across the floor, and curled up on top of the room’s air conditioning vent.  Mila tracked the cat with her eyes until her gaze eventually fell on me.  I felt an irrational surge of shame.  Had I interrupted some moment that Mila would’ve preferred to keep to herself?  Could I even be blamed because I’d happened to wake up right then?

Mila didn’t seem embarrassed in the slightest.  “Hope you don’t mind me using your room,” she said.

It’s fine,” I said, “but why?  Do you think something’s going to happen?”

I’m always thinking about that as a possibility, sure, but there isn’t anything specific.”  She gestured to her array of weaponry.  “Your room has a better desk.”

She glanced down at her cat.  Sam had either already fallen back asleep or he was so comfortable that there wasn’t any functional difference. 

I’d fallen asleep in my clothes, so my modesty wasn’t in any danger as I pushed off the covers and staggered over to the coffee pot and room service menus.  “What’d I miss?”

Mila filled me in on the details while I ordered food and began to put my mind back to work.  I’d been asleep for about five hours, although Mila could only personally attest to two of those.  After I’d retired to my bedroom, she’d debriefed Virginia on the latest developments.  She’d used a carefully redacted version of events, which neatly excised anything that my grandmother might deem too reckless or ill-planned.  Also, Virginia hadn’t been downstairs for the conversation with my parents, so she needed to be brought up to speed on that, as well.

After that, Mila had taken it upon herself to ‘escort’ Barrett back to his hotel.  The cat burglar had protested, claiming that he couldn’t risk having anyone know exactly where he was staying, but Mila hadn’t been willing to take no for an answer.

I told him that he’d either take me to his hotel,” Mila said, “or I’d knock him out, go through his pockets for a hotel key, and take him there myself.”

Wisely, Barrett had chosen the second option.  As soon as she was sure he wasn’t following her, Mila had reached out to her local contacts to resupply.  We weren’t attacking the Texan anymore, so the full breadth of the local Underworld was available to her.  It wouldn’t matter much if the Twins knew that we’d purchased weapons or body armor; odds were, if we ended up going against them, they would eventually know exactly who had attacked them.

She had also drilled down on a few details with her friends, hoping to gain some perspective on the kidnapping.

Here’s the thing,” Mila said.  She used her teeth to tear a chunk out of a chocolate donut, topped with salted caramel icing.  It hadn’t been on the menu, but there were benefits to being a Ford.  “I don’t think the Texan has left the building, so to speak.”

Why not?” I asked around a mouthful of eggs and bacon.  I took a swig of coffee to wash that down before continuing.  “If the Twins – or whoever else, I know – wanted to kidnap an information broker and all of his information, wouldn’t leaving the state be the smart thing to do?”

That would be the typical thing to do, sure,” Mila said.  “But when has anything typical ever happened to us?”

Fair point.  I considered her idea and found a lot of points in its favor.  The Trinity River ran south, towards Mexico and freedom.  Using the Texan’s stolen boat to transport his own data would have been elegant and simple.  And predictable.  Instead, sending the boat downriver and finding some way to head north would confuse the efforts of any pursuers.

I voiced those thoughts to Mila, but she disagreed with a slight shake of her head.  “Why go north at all?  Why not just stay right here and see who leaves town to chase him down?”

Another fair point. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to catch a flight down South, in hopes of catching the kidnappers en route to their destination.  Except, if Mila was right, that would have played right into their hands.  Two Fords arriving in Dallas wasn’t remarkable; those same Fords leaving the city within hours of an attack might be enough of an anomaly to get someone’s attention. 

So you think he’s still in Dallas?”  I asked.

Probably not in the city itself,” Mila said.  “Or even the outskirts.  But somewhere in Fort Worth, maybe?  Or closer to the center of the state?  That’s definitely a possibility.”

Any way we could narrow that down?  We don’t really have the time to draw up a grid and check Texas, inch by inch.”

That depends on what information your friend can give us.  The more she knows, the more I’ll be able to narrow it down.”  Mila stressed the word ‘friend’ and gave it a touch of sarcasm.

I sighed.  “What’s going on with Max?”

No word.  Not much from Michel, either.”  The corners of her mouth tightened.

What qualifies as not much?”

They found a place to set up and they should be done unloading everything worth saving by sometime tonight.”

Did he say where they are?”

Mila shook her head.

We sat in silence for a minute or two.  Mila finished the rest of her donut, wiped her hands, and heaved a sigh.  “You might as well,” she said.

Might as well what?”

She gave me a significant look.

I blew air out through my nostrils and rolled my shoulders.  “Alright, fine.  How’s Devlin?”

Still injured, for what that’s worth.  He was taking up position in his room when I left to help Barrett back to his own hotel.”

You told him what happened?”

Mila nodded.


She nodded again.  “He probably wasn’t thrilled about your decision to play chicken with a trio of eighteen wheelers,” she said, “but seeing as you did make it back, it looks like he’s dealing.”

Does that seem strange to you?” I asked her.

Mila tilted her head.

He just seems…entirely too calm about this,” I continued.  “You remember when he took it upon himself to go sit in an interrogation room for his grand scheme?”

I remember that you paced a groove into the carpet, yeah.”

And he was just…what?  Sitting in the lobby, patiently waiting for us to come back?”

You’d have to ask him,” Mila said.  “Reading people isn’t my thing.”

That wasn’t true, but this wasn’t the time or place to bring it up.  Mila’s ability to discern intent or danger from certain people could only have been rooted in a high sense of empathy.  Whether she wanted to admit that about herself wasn’t really all that important at the moment.

She was right, though.  Devlin had been distracted and hurried when we’d arrived back at the hotel.  With several hours to stew over his feelings, he probably wouldn’t be a great mood.  But we needed to work well together and that meant I had to talk to him.

I pushed the remaining trays of food away from me, told Mila that I’d be back shortly, and made my way down the hallway to Devlin’s room.  I knocked twice on the door, paused, then knocked twice more before he finally answered.

If I’d been exhausted following my round of automobile jousting, then Devlin was hollowed out.  His eyes were lined with red and he still hadn’t found the time to shave.  Even his generally wispy facial hair was darkening to an appreciable level of scruff.  He blinked at my appearance, similarly disheveled but at least wearing a cool leather jacket, and then rubbed at his eyes with his uninjured hand.

I was about to hop in the shower,” he said immediately. “I know that’s exactly what anyone would say when they get caught like this, but I’m serious.”

I looked past him, so that I could see the inside of the room.  Devlin had acquired a laptop and it glowed softly from the coffee table.  The television was on, but muted.  A half-eaten plate, loaded with bacon and pancakes, had been abandoned to the far end of the table.  Next to that, a comically oversized coffee cup still brimming with liquid.  A thin trickle of steam snaked out from the mirrored black surface of the coffee.

Housekeeping was getting in my way,” Devlin said, when he noticed the trajectory of my eyes.  “It’s so hard to find good help these days.”

Can I come in?” I asked.

He hesitated just long enough to make me doubt.  “Sure, sure.”

Devlin leaned against the counter in the kitchen; I sat on the end of the couch closest to him.  The computer screen went dark just as I sat down, so I wasn’t unable to see what he’d been reading.

What’s up?” Devlin asked.  He opened the fridge and began rifling through its contents.

You’re pretending to be really okay with all of this,” I said, “but I know you well enough to call BS on this whole act.”


This isn’t about…us, you know?” I hated that I sounded so indecisive.  “You realize that the two things are different, don’t you?”

Devlin emerged from the fridge with a Diet Coke in one hand and a bottled water in the other.  He handed me the soda and unscrewed the top on his own beverage before responding.

I mean…yes, I get that. Did you think I didn’t get that?”

I didn’t do it to get even with you or anything like that,” I continued. I wanted to stop talking, but I just couldn’t. My guilt had been kept at bay before but now, looking at Devlin in a state of such absolute disarray, it came roaring back.

He averted his eyes. “We wouldn’t be even anyway, Sarah. What I did was worse. I am well aware of that.”

This wasn’t going the way I’d hoped. I fought to regain control of my mouth and tried to change the subject. “Well. Alright, then. I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t holding a grudge or feeling any particular type of way.”

I hadn’t intended to say that either.

I’m not. I’m really not.”

The awkward silence in the room seemed to cause him physical pain. He drank from his water bottle quietly for several seconds before he cleared his throat. “Mila told me about what you saw at the Texan’s dock. Are you okay?”

Fragmented mages flashed through my mind but I pushed them down before they could clarify into anything recognizable. “I’ll be okay,” I said. “Have you ever seen anything like…that?”

You mean, from before we started working together? No. I didn’t get involved in anything that serious back then. It was mostly low level things. Smash and grabs, an occasional private residence.”

Until St. Petersburg.”

Until St. Petersburg,” Devlin said. “Asher and I had been working together for a while and he wanted to go for something a little more ambitious. But I guess the Magi had been watching him for a while at that point. Or he’d been watching them. Who knows?”

That’s when the Lady started paying attention to you, wasn’t it?”

He shrugged. “You’d have to ask her. Good luck getting a straight answer.

In my experience, the Lady’s answers were almost always perfectly straight. The trick was knowing which questions to ask.

Anyway,” Devlin said. “No, nothing I’ve done professionally has ever really prepared me for anything like what we’re doing now.”

Are you scared?”

I hadn’t meant for the question to make it past my lips, but I didn’t really regret speaking it out loud either.

Of course,” Devlin said. “I’m terrified. This was just…I don’t want to say that it’s just been fun and games, but it’s been exciting. Do you know what I mean?”

I did. As much as the wildly unpredictable adrenaline surges made me want to vomit, I could understand how a person got addicted to the rush. When I was in the field, barely keeping myself from disastrous failure, I felt alive. Colors were sharper, sounds clearer. My mind worked the fastest it had ever worked.

But now it’s serious,” I said. “People are dying.”

People have died before,” Devlin pointed out. “At least two in London. Several people in Macao.”

And in Morocco, yes.” The memory of Fatima standing behind her deposed rival, blood dripping from the knife in her hand, would probably stay near the forefront of my mind for the rest of my life. “But those were bad people. Worse people, I guess. We aren’t innocent.”

We’re relatively innocent,” Devlin said. “That’s got to count for something.”

He winked at me. It was such an utterly incongruous action that I giggled before stopping to think about it. That unguarded moment led to another: I grinned up at Devlin. The tightness I’d felt about this conversation began to dissipate.

Now,” Devlin said, “if you don’t mind, I’d really like to take a shower and get properly dressed. We all need to figure out what we’re going to do about your parents. Virginia has some ideas, apparently.”

I’m sure she’s just full of ideas on how to waylay my mother,” I said.

A smile flashed across Devlin’s face. “I’m sure she’ll restrain herself. But. Shower?”

I touched two fingers to my brow in salute and allowed Devlin to escort me to the door. It wasn’t until he’d gently ushered me back into the hallway that I realized how he’d managed to steer the conversation.

We’d avoided almost every topic that might have resulted in an argument: his real feelings, how we’d tackle this next obstacle, Barrett’s presence, or – for that matter – even Barrett’s name. All of that had been carefully avoided.

I thought about knocking on the door again to catch him before he got into the shower. My hand froze about six inches away from the knocker, though. I turned away and walked back to my own room. Things between Devlin and me were good right now. Reaching anything past that level of comfort would require painful conversations about things we both wanted desperately to ignore.

We were good,though. Not great…but good. That would have to be enough for right now.

Chapter 96

Raymond and Elizabeth Ford knew how to make an entrance.  They’d been trained on the proper way to draw the eye by the very best at that sort of thing.  Even though I knew it was an affectation, I couldn’t help but fall under the spell.  Everything about them – how they dressed, how they moved, the way they commanded attention by simple virtue of their presence – had never dimmed in my eyes.  Virginia had changed during the period of time when I’d been actively avoiding my family; my parents, however, had remained exactly the same.

Sarah,” my mother began, “where else would we be?  Our daughter pops back up, as if from outer space; she’s been the victim of a car crash serious enough to warrant national attention; and she wonders why we came to check in on her.”

Your mother was worried,” my father added.  “As soon as she saw the news, she rescheduled the stockholders’ meeting and contracted a jet to bring us straight here.”

Elizabeth nodded.  “And we couldn’t have gotten here quickly enough, it seems.  You look so tired, Sarah.  Are you sure you’re alright?”

My cheeks grew warm and, reflexively, I turned my face away from her.  I couldn’t began to imagine what the bags underneath my eyes looked like and I didn’t want to give her an opportunity to tell me.  In detail.  As she was probably eager to do.

How did you know where I was?” I asked, hoping to change the subject and find some sort of solid ground.

We reached out to Virginia,” Elizabeth said.  She just barely rolled her eyes to convey her feelings about the woman.  “The last time she left Georgia, it took a team of oxen and a dozen skilled men and she ran back home as soon as we looked away.  When we found out that she’d borrowed a car from the local branch of the business, it wasn’t hard to figure out that the two of you must have decided to abscond together. Lord only knows why, though.”

Raymond pressed his lips together for a microsecond at Elizabeth’s terminology, then shook his head and allowed his irritation to slowly bleed away from his face.  “My mother told us that you didn’t want this to become a media spectacle and that we shouldn’t involve ourselves.  Elizabeth and I decided otherwise.”

At least Virginia had made an effort. However, I doubted that she’d made her point in the succinct and cogent way my father intimated.  The screaming matches between those two women had been legendary, frequent, and often quite vile.  I learned my first swear words while sitting at the edge of one such confrontation, courtesy of Virginia’s expansive vocabulary; my first obscene gesture had been a gift from my mother, in response. 

If the two of you are here,” I said, “reporters are going to swarm this place.  The investors will think that you’re scouting out new areas for businesses or shifting your focus.”

They’ll spread rumors and whispers, no matter what we do.” Elizabeth lifted her chin a millimeter or two.  “Let them talk.”

It wasn’t them that I was worried about. “I’m not hurt, honestly, but I just want to relax and let this whole thing blow over.”

Raymond and Elizabeth exchanged a look.  It was Elizabeth who spoke first.  “Actually dear,” she said, “when we rescheduled the meeting, the two of us decided that Dallas was something of an under-served market. The PR people thought it might be a good idea if we met with the shareholders here instead of back at the main office.”

Ah.  Yes, that made much more sense.  Any news report would have definitely stated that I’d been unharmed in the car crash.  Elizabeth wouldn’t cancel a shareholder meeting just to fly cross-country and mother me.  She would, however, use it as an opportunity to develop her personal brand and show face at the local branch.

And your sister, of course,” Raymond said casually.

My head snapped up.  “My sister? What about her?”

Yes, Kesia will also be coming to check in on you,” Elizabeth said.  She gave another one of her patented miniature eye-rolls.  “I know it’s been a while since the two of you were civil with each other, but really.  It’s time for us all to grow up, don’t you think? You’re out here spending time with Virginia, after all.”

It wasn’t that I hated my sister.  Growing up in her shadow had been difficult enough, without the added stress of maintaining a one-sided rivalry.  Everything I’d wanted to become, Kesia already been.  Everything I became, she was better at.  The only area in which I was unquestionably superior was in my thefts and hacks; two things I could hardly throw in her face whenever I saw her again.  I could already imagine the conversation now.


Kesia: Oh, I’ve just been working on a cure for cancer and childhood diabetes.  What have you been working on?

Me: Just, uh…traveling.  A lot, lately.

Kesia: It must be so much fun to do whatever you want.  No obligations or responsibilities for my little sister, after all!


I gagged just thinking about it.  If Kesia was coming to Dallas, that only meant I needed to finish my business here and get the hell away as soon as possible.  My parents would be difficult enough to avoid for any length of time.  Kesia would make it her mission to haunt me at every turn.  She’d insist on early brunches with ‘the family,’ and long lunches where she talked at length about whatever medical breakthrough she was on the verge of discovering, and late dinners where she could be the very model of a generous, captivating host.  It had been hard enough to deal with her oppressive, passive-aggressive cheerfulness when I hadn’t been dealing with literal matters of life and death.  God, she was just the –

Is this the man Virginia mentioned?” Elizabeth asked.

The question yanked me out of my spiraling thoughts.  She was looking past me to focus on Barrett and Devlin.  They both stood perfectly still, unwilling to respond to Elizabeth’s question and unable to ask me what they should do.  Which was just as well, because I certainly didn’t have an answer for them.

Michel?”  She took two perfectly measured steps forward and extended a hand to Barrett.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.  I can’t begin to understand what would keep Sarah from introducing you to the family…but I suppose that doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

Of course she’d think Barrett was my husband.  Or, more accurately, that he was my fictional husband.  Virginia thought that I was married to Michel, not that I’d been previously married to Devlin.  She would have told Elizabeth as little as possible about him, simply to be obtuse and irritating, but the fact that I was supposed to be married to a black man must have made it across.

It is, uh, a pleasure to meet you too,” Barrett said.  He took her hand and lightly kissed the back.  I resisted the urge to slap him, but just barely. 

How long have you been in America?” Elizabeth asked.  “Your accent is amazing.  I’ve met many Parisians who aren’t anywhere near as talented, no matter how long they’ve been expatriated.”

At least Barrett had the good grace to appear embarrassed.  “Thank you for the compliment.  It, uh, has not been very long.”

I thought about interrupting and correcting the assumption, but stopped myself before I uttered a syllable.  Any story that I told to explain the mix-up would almost certainly be too complicated to create on the spot.  I’d have to introduce Barrett to my parents now; I couldn’t see any way around that.  And when I finished contriving a story for his presence, I would still have to explain away Michel’s absence in some satisfactory manner.  I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that he was busy working, because then she’d want to know what he was doing.  I couldn’t explain the nature of that work without enduring a slew of well-meaning, persistent questions that would erode any semblance of plausibility in short order.

And I was tired.  I needed to get out of this ambush, find a hole to crawl into, and then pull that hole in after me.  One lie was as good as any other, under the circumstances.  I just needed to make sure that we kept everything from spinning out of control.

Barrett promptly dashed that idea to bits when he wrapped one arm around my waist and pulled me in close to his chest.  “Sarah has been very shy about our relationship,” he said, “but I am not offended by her shyness.”

Sarah?” Raymond asked.  He raised an eyebrow.  “Shy?”

I extricated myself from Barrett’s side and managed to get him between the ribs with an elbow as I did so.  “He’s getting ahead of himself,” I said.

And who’s this?” Elizabeth asked.  She moved her eyes from Barrett to Devlin.  “Another one of my daughter’s friends?  That would be so French of her.”

The heat radiating from Devlin was tangible, but he was still a professional.  He’d follow my lead, no matter his personal feelings.  If one cover identity fell apart – namely, that I was Michel’s wife and not his ex-wife – then he’d adapt and support the new version.  

Just a friend in the regular American way,” he said.  “Devlin Murphy, at your service.”

He removed an invisible hat and gave Elizabeth an extravagantly deep bow.

Sarah,” Elizabeth stage whispered, “your friends are absolutely delightful.  What possible reason would you have for keeping them all to yourself?”

I’ve got my reasons,” I said.  “How long are you going to be here?”

Are you in a hurry for us to leave already?”

Good God, yes.

No,” I said, “of course I’m not.  But, as you can see, I’m perfectly unharmed.  There’s no reason for you to fuss over me.”

Raymond and Elizabeth conferred on the matter within an instant of shared eye contact.  Their ability to do that had been the cause of a frustrating childhood and a confusing adolescence.  Whenever I’d managed to convince myself that my parents were an old school power couple – two people from wealthy and connected families, thrown together in order to preserve the financial order – they did something like that.  Raymond would touch her lightly in the small of her back to convey a message or Elizabeth would tilt her head by a millimeter to say something else entirely. 

That ability had become the guiding light I’d sought out in my relationships.  None of the socialite partners I’d been introduced to at any of the thousand balls I’d attended over my lifetime had ever been able to duplicate that soul-deep connection.  Watching the unspoken communication play out, now that I was an adult, was as confounding as it had ever been.

The shareholders intend to meet here, in Dallas, within a week or two,” Raymond said.

Why such a long wait?”  I asked.

Your sister,” Raymond said, “has convinced us to put everything off for at least that long.  She says that she has an announcement to make, and that she’d love it if we were all in one place when she did so.”

Elizabeth laid a hand on Raymond’s arm, just above the elbow.  “If you hadn’t suffered your accident, she says that she would have found some other way to get in touch.  This was just convenient.”

Raymond frowned.  “I wouldn’t say that a car collision as serious as the one Sarah suffered was convenient.”

Oh, you know what I meant.  Anyway, Sarah: we’ll likely be here until after the shareholders’ meeting.  That should give us all plenty of time to reconnect.”

I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose.  This was just too much.  Whatever spiritual transformation Virginia had gone through, she was at least willing to give me space to work, even if she still only had the barest idea what that work entailed.  Elizabeth would force us to spend time together specifically to spite Virginia, to show her how a real mother acted for her children.  The animosity between the two of them had always been ferocious like that.

Virginia and Ezekiel had built their business together, starting with almost nothing and clawing their way to the top with their wits and talents.  Raymond had been born to the privilege they’d earned, but Ezekiel had gone out of his way to show his only son the value of a dollar.  His success in that endeavor was proven by the size of the family business, only one generation later.  As a result of his elevated social class, it hadn’t taken long before Raymond caught the eyes of a great many powerful women.  Of those women, he’d chosen Elizabeth and wooed her until she’d agreed to marry him.

The root of the enmity between Elizabeth and Virginia started right there.  Elizabeth was rich.  Her family was rich.  Or, more accurately, her adopted family was rich.  They’d been rich for generations, due to several Northern manufacturing plants that had produced weapons and clothing for Revolutionary and Union troops.  At no point in her entire life had Elizabeth ever done without, struggled, or been forced to work for anything.  Even her husband had come to her.  All she’d needed to do was be pretty, nod at the appropriate points, and wait for a suitably impressive proposal.  That was, after all, what her own parents expected her to do.

Virginia never seemed able to get over Elizabeth’s life of luxury; Elizabeth, in turn, refused to understand why her mother-in-law never moved completely out of the way of her only child.   What could have been settled by an earnest conversation ballooned, over many years, into a cold war that was never very far from exploding into open violence. 

I’d learned to navigate that minefield during my youth, primarily for my continued survival.  Threading between the hidden explosive devices would be even harder while I was juggling so many other explosive devices.  One of which, I reminded myself, was going to explode in about three weeks no matter what I did.

I yawned.  This could wait for another day.  I needed to work with Max to save the Texan; I needed the Texan to find the Community; I needed the Community to deal with the Mouse; and I needed to deal with the Mouse so that I could get back to unmasking the Magi and laying them bare for the Lady to deal with.

But now, I needed to eat and to sleep.

Can we start on that tomorrow?” I asked.  I directed the question to Raymond, trusting that he hadn’t built up an immunity my very best puppy dog eyes.  “I’m actually feeling a little tired right now.”

Absolutely,” Raymond said.  “Your mother and I are staying in a property we’ve rented for the next month or so.  There are more than enough rooms for you, your husband, and your friend if you’d prefer to stay with us.”

It would be so much easier for us to see each other,” Elizabeth added. 

I came here with Virginia,” I said, fully aware that I’d pay for my loyalty at a later date.  “I think I’ll sleep here tonight.  We can figure out where we’re staying after that later on, though.  Really, I’m beat.”

Elizabeth attempted to convince me to abandon Virginia, before my father stepped in and said his goodbyes to me, Devlin, and Barrett.  As soon as the door to their rented limousine closed, I turned on my heel and trudged over the elevator.  My head grew heavier with every step.

Sarah?” Devlin asked.

I’m exhausted,” I replied.  “I’m starving.  Can we talk about everything later?”

Every line on his face told me that he wanted to know right now what had happened during our late night attempted heist, but he respected my wishes and didn’t say anything else.  Barrett, who joined us in the elevator, was also quiet.  Instead of a concerned, curious look, he wore a smug grin.  The same smug grin, in fact, that he always seemed to be wearing.  I ignored it just as I tried to ignore Devlin.

We reached my floor and I fumbled for my key card as I walked.  Both men flanked me, one on each side, in case I tipped over or collapsed right there in the hallway.  Nothing like that happened, though, and I made it to my room without incident.

Barrett,” I said, “why did you come up here?  You don’t have a room at this hotel.”

Well,” he said, “I figure that if we’re apparently married now, I should probably stay in the room with you, shouldn’t I?  You know, just for appearance’s sake.”

I leveled a flat look at him.  It was one I’d borrowed from Virginia and I was particularly proud of it.

I’ll be a perfect gentleman,” Barrett said quickly.  “You won’t even know I’m there.”

I’m sure I won’t,” I said. 

Swiping the key card through reader to unlock the door, I leaned against the wood and let my weight carry me into the room.  I stumbled, corrected myself, and then fully regained my balance by gripping the edge of the door.

Night, boys,” I said.

Sarah –“ Devlin began.

We could always –“ Barrett started.

I slammed the door in both of their faces and passed out as soon as my head touched the pillow.